By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 8:39 PM
Legislation that would legalize same-sex marriages in Maryland appeared headed for passage in the state Senate after winning approval Thursday from a key committee and the backing of a Prince George's senator who had withheld his support.
A 7 to 4 vote by the Judicial Proceedings Committee sends the bill to the Senate floor, where a lengthy and emotional debate is expected next week on the most high-profile social issue of the 90-day session.
Although the vote in the full Senate is expected to be close, leadership of both parties on Thursday predicted passage. The legislation would then move to the House of Delegates, traditionally the more liberal chamber on social policy.
"I think they're going to pull it out," conceded Senate Minority Leader Nancy C. Jacobs (R-Harford), one of the four committee members who opposed the bill, which would remove Maryland's requirement that marriages be between a man and a woman.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) also predicted Thursday that the bill will narrowly pass in his chamber. Maryland would join the District and five other states in allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Shortly after the committee vote, Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's) issued a statement endorsing the legislation. Rosapepe, whose district includes College Park, has been heavily lobbied by university students and others who support the bill.
Rosapepe cited the committee's strengthening of a "conscience clause" intended to make clear that religious organizations and their affiliates do not have to participate in weddings or celebrations that violate their beliefs.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the amendment, said it was intended to "give comfort" to senators with reservations about the legislation.
"Anything can happen in Annapolis, so I'm still on the edge of my seat," Raskin said. "But the bill is in great shape right now."
The backing of Rosapepe provided some cushion for supporters heading into next week's floor debate.
A Washington Post tally this week showed 24 senators - the minimum needed for passage - having said they would support the bill.
The tally includes Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), who said in an interview last week that she would vote for the bill if she were the deciding vote. Conway has been more equivocal in interviews with other news organizations.
In a brief interview Thursday, Conway told The Post that she was "going to do the right thing" but would not elaborate.
Only one other senator - John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel) - remains undeclared.
The committee vote was hailed by Equality Maryland, the state's leading gay rights lobby, which noted similar legislation stalled before that panel in previous years.
"Very soon our families will be provided with the same respect and protections as all other families," said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the group's executive director.
Echoing other opponents of the bill, Jacobs said the legislation conflicts with her Christian faith. "Public opinion may change, but for people of religious faith, God's word doesn't change," she said.
The General Assembly may not have the final word on the issue: If the bill passes, opponents of the legislation have said they will pursue a provision in Maryland law that allows citizens to petition approved legislation to the ballot. If successful, that action would put the law on hold pending a statewide vote in November 2012.