ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (Reuters) - A Maryland Senate committee approved a gay marriage bill on Tuesday, sending the issue to the full Senate and moving Maryland closer to becoming the eighth state to legalize same-sex nuptials.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 7 to 4 in favor of the bill - supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley - and the full Senate was expected to vote later in the week. The bill was approved last week by the lower house.
"I believe the 25 votes that we had last year will hold," said Senator Jamie Raskin, referring to last year's gay marriage bill which passed the Senate but died in the House.
There may be even be a few more favorable Senate votes this year, said Raskin, a Democrat from Montgomery County.
"Public opinion is changing quickly," he said.
While still controversial, same-sex marriage has been gaining acceptance nationally in recent weeks, with Washington state signing it into law and the New Jersey legislature passing it through both houses, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
An appeals court has overturned California's ban on gay marriage, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative.
Washington opponents are attempting ballot initiatives to repeal or block the law, which otherwise would come into effect in June. Same-sex couples can marry in the District of Columbia and six other states: Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York.
Before the committee vote in Maryland, senators debated its religious liberty protections. Under those, a religious group or a nonprofit organization sponsored by a religious group is not required to provide services that violate their religious beliefs unless they receive federal funding, said Raskin, a bill supporter.
For example, the liberty provision would allow the Knights of Columbus to refuse to rent out their meeting hall for a same-sex wedding, and would not require a church counseling service to counsel same-sex couples.
Raskin said the bill provides "legitimate accommodation of religious liberty," adding "I cannot foresee any situation in which these religious liberty protections are struck down."
Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Daniel Trotta