By MAGGIE CLARK
ANNAPOLIS (February 24, 2011) Maryland took a step closer to approving same-sex marriages Thursday with narrow approval in the Senate.
Opponents failed to mount a filibuster threatened earlier in the week and senators passed the bill 25-21. The bill now moves to the House, where it is expected to have an easier road to passage, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign it.
The vote was met with cheers from the gallery, and the session ended with supporters hugging, laughing, and crying with excitement in the State House lobby.
For Sama Bellomo, 28, of Howard County, the vote was a relief for her and her wife.
"This is absolutely epic. It's historic. I got married to my wife in D.C. as soon as it was legal because we were sure we were going to lose the right, like in California ... even if something should change, to know that we've made this effort and had this kind of impact is really great. I can't wait to see what we do next as a state," said Bellomo.
The bill in question is the Civil Marriage Protection Act (2011 Senate Bill 116), which changes the definition of marriage from "between a man and a woman" to "between two individuals." It permits churches to refuse to perform same-sex unions if the practice violates their beliefs.
Debate was impassioned on both sides and senators recounted their individual experiences with the issue.
"In 13 years, this is one of the easiest votes I'm going to take," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who voted in support of the bill.
"It is very rare that you get an opportunity here to make such a meaningful impact to so many of our citizens. We're not impacting anyone's life in a negative way, but we are impacting, very profoundly, thousands of our friends and family," Zirkin said.
Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, who stepped down as the upper chamber's minority leader because of his support of marriage equality, said voting for this bill was the right thing to do.
"I look at this bill as providing equal rights to our friends, to our families, to our colleagues. It took me a while to get where I am, but I'm here because I believe in equal rights. I believe that those who work with us and who live in our communities deserve to have the same rights as everybody else," Kittleman said.
Opponents gave many reasons for their votes, including protecting children and fear that the legislation goes too far too quickly.
"Humankind has innately recognized that it's best for children when they're raised by their married, biological parents," said Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford.
"Throughout the ages, marriage has primarily been about children ... marriage was not created to give two adults access to benefits. Obviously, because the institution predates the benefits," Jacobs said.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's, warned that the bill is too extreme and argued for a more incremental approach, first trying out civil unions, then moving to full marriage rights.
"This bill gives it all now ... this bill is complicated and has major ramifications and some of them, we just don't know...For me it's too far, too fast, and I don't fully understand the ramifications of the bill," he said.
Opponents have vowed to take the issue to the voters in a referendum. Several senators mentioned that the bill would be defeated in a Maryland referendum, just as it has been in California and Maine.
"I guarantee to the people of the state of Maryland that feel strongly about this issue that you will see it again. And you will see it at the ballot box," said Jacobs.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, supporter and floor leader for the debate, said that if the issue goes to referendum, the bill will win approval.
"We'll run it like a campaign and be the first state in America where same-sex marriage wins on the ballot," said Raskin.
Even with such a contentious issue, the debate remained genial, and leaders complimented each other on their civility.
"I want to say thank you to my colleagues on both sides of this issue. I thought the debate showed the Senate at its best on a difficult issue," said Majority Leader Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery.
With this vote, Maryland comes one step closer to joining five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage.
The decision comes on the heels of the Obama administration announcement that it will 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 has said he and President Obama determined that key portions of the law are unconstitutional.