Maryland's Senate passed a landmark measure Thursday evening that would allow same-sex couples to wed, pushing the controversial issue to the House of Delegates, which appears nearly evenly split on the issue.
The Senate voted 25-21 to approve the Civil Marriage Protection Act after two days of largely restrained and respectful discussion. Senators on both sides of the issue characterized the debate as "historic," and many said they had struggled with how to vote.
"I'm just thrilled," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., the Senate's only openly gay member. "I'm so excited that we were able to get this done."
Discussion in the House of Delegates is set to begin Friday, with a committee hearing that could be far more rancorous than anything the Senate has seen.
Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., a chief opponent of the legislation, promised this week to "take off the gloves" when he discusses gay marriage. The Anne Arundel Republican's bill to outlaw recognition of any union not between a man and a woman is also scheduled to be heard Friday.
"The Senate has been congenial. The House is going to be a lot more volatile," predicted Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a Baltimore Democrat and co-sponsor of the House version of the same-sex marriage legislation. "There are more personalities in the mix. I'm concerned about the tone."
Supporters said the Senate vote would bring comfort to thousands of gay and lesbian couples who believe that current law treats them as second-class citizens. Opponents warned that the bill would have unintended consequences, such as bringing a "homosexual worldview" into classrooms and diminishing the sanctity of marriage.
Opponents did not have the votes to mount a successful filibuster. At 6 p.m. Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate, called for a vote to limit debate to one hour, a motion that passed easily with 30 votes.
Final passage 30 minutes later brought applause from supportive senators.
The prospect of legalizing same-sex marriage has dominated the General Assembly session, with several lawmakers predicting that the vote would be remembered well after they retire. The measure gained momentum this year with the addition of two supporters to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, providing for the first time enough votes to bring the bill to the chamber floor.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, which would make Maryland the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. The District of Columbia allowed same-sex unions last year. At least two other states are taking up the issue.
But approval in the House of Delegates is far from assured. The bill in that chamber has 58 sponsors; 71 votes are needed for passage. And if it is passed, opponents would almost certainly petition for a referendum, giving Maryland voters the final say.
"In the larger equation, this is an idea whose time has come," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the floor debate. "But the suspense continues."
Madaleno said thousands of Maryland couples are "wishing for this" bill to pass. The Montgomery County Democrat spoke on the floor about his partner, Mark Hodge, whom many of his fellow senators have come to know.
"We made a commitment to each other," Madaleno told his colleagues. "He in my heart is my spouse. … I wouldn't ask any of you to call your spouse your 'partner.'"
The bill would repeal a 38-year old provision in Maryland law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The General Assembly crafted the definition in 1973 in reaction to "a growing movement to protect the rights of homosexuals," according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time.
The issue sparked far less controversy then. It was opposed by a single Republican senator, who viewed the provision as an "unnecessary restriction on an individual's freedom," according to a 1973 Sun article.
The Senate floor debate started in earnest Wednesday, when opponents offered a series of amendments that they said were needed to ensure that religious groups would not be forced to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Supporters of the bill accepted some of the amendments. Religious groups would not have to provide same-sex couples with benefits, such as insurance, that they offer only to members.