By TOM MCPARLAND
ANNAPOLIS (February 17, 2012)—After a year of highly contested debate and political wrangling, the Maryland General Assembly is poised to become the third state legislature this month to approve same-sex marriage after the House of Delegates Friday voted 71-67 to pass the Civil Marriage Protection Act.
"I think it's a great day for liberty in Maryland and America," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery. "I'm so happy that my gay and lesbian friends can have the same rights that I have."
A nearly two hour debate with many delegates expressing the reasons for their votes ended when House Speaker Michael E. Busch called for a final vote, and the same-sex marriage supporters that packed the gallery erupted with resounding joy when they realized the bill had received just enough votes to pass.
"I was shouting with them," said Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, an openly gay legislator and bill cosponsor, who held back tears as she spoke afterward. Mizeur said several members changed their minds in the 48 hours leading up to the vote.
The debate now moves to the Senate where same-sex marriage passed last year. If same-sex marriage is approved, Maryland would join six states and Washington, D.C., in issuing licenses to gay couples.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who after days of intense lobbying listened to the debate on a computer in his office, praised House members.
"Today, the House of Delegates voted for human dignity," O'Malley said in a statement. "Speaker Busch and his fellow Delegates deserve a lot of credit for their hard work. At its heart, their vote was a vote for Maryland's children."
But opponents questioned the process that led to the bill's passage and said traditional marriage should remain only between a man and a woman. They vowed to take the law to the state's voters in a November referendum, and said individual delegates would pay at the ballot box in 2014.
"There will be two future votes on this issue. There will be one that the people ask for to turn away our nonsense, and there will be another one in 2014 to deal with the nonsense of our futures," said Delegate Michael A. McDermott, R-Wicomico.
The bill was voted through two House committees Tuesday evening, sending it to the full House. After delaying debate on Wednesday, the House voted Thursday to accept one amendment pushing back the effective date of the bill until January 2013.
The chamber met shortly before 1 p.m. Friday, where members debated five amendments for about an hour and a half, accepting one, a motion by Delegate Tiffany Alston, D-Prince George's, which passed 81-52.
The amendment added a provision declaring the entire legislation null if a court found any part of it unconstitutional.
Alston, who spoke out and voted against the bill in committee, cast her vote in favor on the floor. She was not available for comment afterward.
During the debate of Alston's amendment, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert, moved for the House to delay the discussion until Monday, which would give the Attorney General a chance to issue an opinion on its language.
"Don't use your majority, please, to reject this motion and ram it through," O'Donnell said on the floor.
Throughout the session, same-sex marriage has been a tough sell with some, particularly black delegates from Prince George's County.
"If we redefine the term of marriage in the state of Maryland, how long will it be before we leave somebody else to have three wives, dual husbands," said Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George's, who voted against the bill.
Last year, O'Malley promised to sign similar legislation if it reached his desk, but after that bill failed in the House, he decided to make same-sex marriage a major part of his legislative agenda this year, investing significant political capital in its passage.
The change, he said, was due in part to changing public attitudes.
"The public I serve moved more quickly than I had thought on this issue. That involves a personal judgment on my part, too," he said last week in Baltimore.
The governor was a visible presence around the State House this week.
On Monday, he gave a speech at a pro-same-sex marriage rally on Lawyers Mall, where about 800 supporters from the coalition Equality Maryland had gathered. O'Malley made the rounds Thursday in the House Office Building, where he met with delegates behind closed doors in the afternoon and with the Democratic Caucus in the early evening.
Friday's vote comes after a week of uncertainty surrounding the vote count in the House. Supporters gained several new votes but also lost a vote when bill supporter Delegate Veronica L. Turner, D-Prince George's, was hospitalized Wednesday night.
A medical procedure scheduled for Friday forced Turner to miss the vote.
Supporters did gain the votes of two House Republicans, a group O'Malley identified as key in securing the 71 votes needed for passage. Previously undecided Robert Costa of Anne Arundel voted for the bill in committee, and Wade Kach of Baltimore County, who initially voted against it earlier this week, announced Thursday that he would flip his vote.
Kach said his final decision was based on the testimony he heard at Friday's marathon committee hearing on same-sex marriage.
"I left that hearing a changed person," Kach said Friday evening.
"I'm sent here because my constituents have faith in my judgment," he said. "However, my constituents did not send me here to judge people."
Same-sex marriage has become legal in a number of states since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 said denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional.
Six states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York—and the district, currently issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A Washington state same-sex marriage law passed earlier this month takes effect in June.
New Jersey's legislature sent a same-sex bill to Gov. Chris Christie Thursday. Christie vetoed it Friday, the Associated Press reported.
California's Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage was recently held unconstitutional by a federal court, but an appeal is expected.
Capital News Service's Ellen Stodola contributed to this report.