In Maryland, House Passes Gay Marriage Bill

Annapolis, Maryland – The Maryland House narrowly passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage on Friday, delivering a major victory to Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, who had proposed it. But its implementation remained uncertain as its opponents promised to take it to voters in November.

The bill, known as the Civil Marriage Protection Act, squeaked by in a 72-to-67 vote, drawing loud applause and cheers from proponents in the House. A similar bill failed in the chamber last year.

The measure still faces a vote in the Senate, where it is expected to pass, before Mr. O’Malley can sign it into law. But opponents have pledged to put in on the ballot for a vote on Nov. 6, a prospect that the bill’s supporters acknowledge is practically a foregone conclusion.

The vote, said Anthony O’Donnell, the Republican minority leader, amounted to “beginning a process, not ending a process. The citizens of Maryland will have the final say.”

The debate stretched for hours in the 18th-century, wooden-domed statehouse, and was punctuated by emotional entreaties by supporters of the bill, including several gay and lesbian delegates, who talked about their own lives, and other delegates who invoked Jim Crow laws.

“This is the civil rights issue of our generation,” said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a Democrat from Baltimore. “I’m overwhelmed,” Luke Clippinger, one of the seven openly gay members of the Maryland House, said after the vote. “My voice is still breaking.”

When asked what the vote meant to him, he said, “It means I’m here.”

After the vote, lawmakers who voted for the bill — mostly Democrats — gathered outside the chamber cheering and hugging. Soon after, Mr. O’Malley arrived to congratulate the delegates. He embraced Mr. Clippinger.

The bill’s passage would make Maryland the eighth state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. It comes a day after New Jersey’s legislature passed a similar bill, though it was vetoed on Friday by Gov. Chris Christie. New York State legalized same-sex marriage last year, and this month Washington State did so.

In order to be palatable to delegates who were undecided, the bill was amended so that it would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2013, in order to allow the ballot process to take its course. Though Maryland is heavily Democratic, the party is sharply divided on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Of 98 Democrats in the House, as many as 30 — mostly more-conservative Democrats known as Blue Dogs, and African-Americans from districts where churches are strong — had been undecided.

The bill’s passage was made possible by two Republicans, three Blue Dogs, and two African-American delegates, none of whom were initially supportive. In interviews, several of those delegates said that a key change from last year that won their support was language protecting religious institutions from being forced to perform marriages.

“People believe that it’s a sin for a homosexual to be married, but who are they to judge?” said Robert Costa, one of the Republicans who voted for the bill. “It’s up to God, not government.”

John Olszewski, a Democrat initially opposed, said the religious exemptions made him feel comfortable enough to vote for the bill. “Denying basic rights to folks just isn’t the right thing for us to be doing,” he said.

Several delegates said they had been warned by powerful parts of their constituencies that a yes vote would cost them in the next election, scheduled for 2014. Mr. Mitchell said it was a risk he was willing to take.

“I’ve heard all types of threats, that in 2014 at the ballot box, there would be revenge,” he said. “But when that day comes, I know that for the seven openly gay colleagues, if they are able to have the same rights as my wife and I have, then I know that my green vote was the right vote.”

Opponents said they were confident they could gather the signatures needed to place it on the ballot, about 55,000. If the referendum is successful, it would effectively repeal the bill.

A Washington Post poll published on Jan. 30 found that 50 percent of Marylanders supported allowing same-sex marriage while 44 percent were opposed.

“This will go to the people, and the people will make the decision,” said Pat McDonough, a Republican who voted against.

Democrats argued that the bill should not go to a referendum because it is an issue of civil liberties that should not be decided by the majority. They said that integration probably would not have happened if left to a popular vote.

This article, “In Maryland, House Passes Gay Marriage Bill,” originally appeared at The New York Times News Service.