By MAGGIE CLARK
Southern Maryland's three senators Roy Dyson, Mike Miller, and Thomas M. Middleton, all Democrats vote against the bill
ANNAPOLIS (February 23, 2011) By a 25-22 vote, the full Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill (2011 Senate Bill 116) allowing same-sex marriage in Maryland.
In a roughly two-hour debate, proponents successfully fought back five amendments, including one that would have allowed wedding service providers, including photographers, caterers and hotels, to refuse to serve gay couples.
Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs proposed another contentious amendment that would have allowed judges and clerks who personally object to same-sex unions to refuse to perform the marriages. Jacobs argued that even though those judges and clerks had taken an oath to uphold the law as public servants, same-sex marriage was not part of the law when they took that oath.
The amendment was unanimously voted down by voice vote.
A final Senate vote is expected as early as Thursday. The House begins hearing testimony on a concurrent bill Friday and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign marriage equality legislation.
The Senate approved several amendments to the bill. The amendments exempt religiously affiliated summer camps, retreats, counseling providers and insurance programs from serving gay couples. The phrase "Religious Freedom" was also dropped from the title of the bill, leaving it as the "Civil Marriage Protection Act."
While these amendments exempted more organizations from recognizing same-sex marriages, supporter of the bill and floor leader Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said the amendments contributed to the overall bill.
"The amendments strengthen the religious protections and I think they'll bring in a lot more people who may have been concerned that the legislation interfered with people's religious freedom," Raskin said.
The act would redefine marriage from "between a man and woman" to "between two individuals" and protect churches from performing same-sex unions if the practice violates their religious beliefs.
Wednesday's vote in the State Senate came hours before the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage at the federal level as between a man and a woman and prohibits federal benefits for same-sex couples. Attorney General Eric Holder said he and President Obama had determined that key portions of the law are unconstitutional.
Maryland Senate leaders expect that Wednesday's 25-22 vote is a good indication of what to expect for the final vote.
"I think that was the major test vote," Raskin said.
Republican leaders agree that the issue is largely decided in the Senate, but are looking to a referendum to let voters decide.
"We know the outcome on second reading today, which is an indicator on what's going to happen. I don't see anyone changing their mind on that," said Jacobs.
Jacobs said she and other Republican leaders have met with outside groups to begin organizing for a voter referendum on the 2012 ballot.
Even with such a contentious issue, debate was markedly calm and at one point, the leaders of both sides, floor leader Raskin, and Minority Leader Jacobs, even complimented each other on their civility.
"It was a very civil and respectful debate. I think it was edifying and it uplifted the discussion," said Raskin.
The debate was also much shorter than many anticipated, lasting a little more than two hours. Leaders had speculated that debate might continue into the evening, but no objections were raised when Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. called the final vote for the day.
If the bill passes, Maryland would join five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage.