By MAGGIE CLARK
ANNAPOLIS (February 17, 2011) Maryland came one step closer to allowing same-sex marriage Thursday when a bill that changes the definition of marriage from "between a man and a woman" to "between two individuals" passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee by a vote of 7-4.
The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act (2011 Senate Bill 116) gives same-sex couples full marriage rights in Maryland and protects churches from performing same-sex unions if the practice violates their religious beliefs. The bill has 18 sponsors in the Senate.
All seven Democrats on the committee voted for the bill and all four Republicans voted against. The bill now moves to the full Senate, where advocates are cautiously optimistic it will get the 24 votes necessary for passage.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign marriage equality legislation.
"It's not over until it's over. I'm very optimistic about how it will go, but we're still working it," said Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola, the lead sponsor of the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, who voted against the bill in committee, said she does not expect Senate Republicans to filibuster, since she expects Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. to let everyone voice their full objections.
"He's giving people the freedom to vote their conscience, but he likes to maintain control of the Senate," said Jacobs."He does not like filibusters. He's going to allow us the opportunity to get all of the discussion out of the way, whether it's two days, three days, one day, I don't know."
Miller expects the bill to come to the Senate floor early next week.
"I want everyone to have their say, and let everyone speak, both proponents and opponents," said Miller.
"I anticipate it will be a very close vote. I predict maybe 25-22," Miller said. He also expects that voters will demand a referendum on the 2012 ballot, which has been the kiss of death for marriage equality in other states.
"I anticipate it will be a huge turnout in a presidential election year, and I'm not sure how it will go, but I think it's a very divided, very contentious issue," Miller said.
Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington County, who voted against the bill Thursday, said he expects a referendum to stop same-sex marriage in Maryland, just the way it did in Maine and California.
"This is not a direction that the state of Maryland should be going in. The people that I've talked to are committed to gathering the signatures to go to a referendum. I think there will be a considerable state-wide effort to do that. It will be very well organized," Shank said.
If passed, Maryland would join five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage. Maryland currently recognizes same-sex marriages from other states.
Since 1973, Maryland has defined that only a marriage between "a man and woman" is valid. The law was challenged in 2004 by nine same-sex couples who filed suit in Baltimore, contending that the state statute defining marriage is unconstitutional.
A Baltimore circuit court ruled the statute unconstitutional and discriminatory, but in 2007, the state Court of Appeals reversed the decision by a 4-3 vote.
Since the lawsuit was filed in 2004, Republicans have introduced legislation every session to define marriage in the Maryland Constitution as "between a man and a woman." The efforts have failed each time.
In 2009, Maryland extended health benefits to state employees and retirees in same-sex relationships, a victory one lawmaker referred to as a "piecemeal approach" to granting same-sex couples equal rights.