Maryland gay marriage bill passes, heads to governor

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland Thu Feb 23, 2012 7:51pm EST

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ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (Reuters) - The Maryland Senate approved on Thursday a same-sex marriage bill that will now be sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has promised to sign the legislation and make the state the eighth in the nation to legalize gay and lesbian nuptials.

The Senate voted in favor of the bill, which had previously been approved by the state's lower House of Delegates, after a full day of debate that included efforts by opponents to derail the measure with a series of proposed amendments.

The preliminary vote tally of 25 to 22 drew loud cheering and applause from the gallery in the 18th-century State House.

"I'm elated. I feel very good about democracy today, I feel very good about equality and freedom and marriage," said Democratic Senator Jamie Raskin, who supported the bill and defended it throughout the debate.

The bill will next be sent to O'Malley, a Democrat who has supported the legislation and promised to sign it once passed by lawmakers. His office could not predict when a signing ceremony might take place.

"Maryland will now be able to protect individual civil marriage rights & religious freedom equally," O'Malley said on his official Twitter feed about a minute after the vote.

Opponents of the measure have said they will push for a voter referendum to repeal it.

They would need nearly 56,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. They would need to submit one-third of those signatures by May 31 and the remainder by June 30 to get the measure on the November ballot.

"I think the voters will have a say in it," said Republican Senator David Brinkley.

While still controversial, same-sex marriage has been gaining acceptance nationally in recent weeks. Washington state signed it into law and the New Jersey legislature passed it through both houses, although it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.

Also, an appeals court has overturned California's ban on gay marriage, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative.

Same-sex couples can marry in the District of Columbia and in six states -- Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York. Washington state will join the list in June unless opponents stop it ahead of a possible ballot initiative.

As debate over the issue rages on, supporters have framed it as a civil rights issue while opponents have said marriage should be reserved for unions between a man and a woman.

In Annapolis, Baltimore resident Maya Deane-Polyak, 15, said she attended Thursday's vote in hopes that it would allow her two mothers to legally wed after 30 years together.

"I think my moms should be married," she said. "It provides a lot of dignity and respect for my family as a whole."

Opponents failed in attempts to introduce about a half-dozen amendments to the bill on Thursday, including a change that would have broadened the bill's religious liberty protections.

Under the current bill, a religious group or a nonprofit organization sponsored by a religious group is not required to provide services linked to gay marriage that violate its religious beliefs unless it receives federal funding.

For example, the protections would allow the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic group, to refuse to rent a meeting hall for a same-sex wedding and not require a church counseling service to counsel same-sex couples, supporters say.

Maryland's Senate passed a similar measure last year, but in that instance it stalled in the House of Delegates.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Dan Burns)

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