Gay marriage wins initial approval in Maryland Senate

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 6:24 PM

The Maryland Senate advanced legislation Wednesday allowing same-sex marriages on a preliminary vote of 25 to 22, all but ensuring passage of the measure in that chamber.

The action, which cleared the way for a final Senate vote Thursday, followed several hours of debate on amendments designed to make exceptions for people whose religious beliefs are at odds with the notion of same-sex couples marrying.

Measures were defeated that sought to allow religiously affiliated adoption agencies to refuse services to same-sex couples, to allow clerks of courts to refuse to conduct marriages based on religious objections and to exempt public school teachers from teaching materials that "promote" gay unions.

A couple of other proposed amendments were added to the bill, including one that makes clear that religious organizations do not have to promote same-sex marriages through educational programs, counseling, retreats or summer camps. A similar provision is in the District's law allowing gay couples to marry.

Senators on both sides of the bill predicted its passage Thursday, which would send the legislation to the House of Delegates - traditionally the more liberal chamber on social policy. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he would sign the legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, an opponent of the bill, acknowledged after debate ended Wednesday that its passage was all but certain and said there were no plans for a filibuster - perhaps the only remaining hurdle in the Senate.

"It definitely will pass," said Jacobs (R-Harford). "We all know the outcome of this."

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who served as the floor leader Wednesday, said the bill clearly had "great momentum" heading into Thursday's vote.

Maryland would join five other states and the District in allowing gay couples to marry. The preliminary Senate vote came the same day that the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriage.

Religious objections

Raskin successfully argued against several amendments floated by Republicans and culturally conservative Democrats, at one point accusing the other side of attempted "finger-painting" on the bill with largely unrelated provisions.

Some of the most passionate debate came over the proposed amendment that sought to allow religious-affiliated adoption agencies, such as Catholic Charities, to refuse services to same-sex couples.

Raskin argued that existing state regulations require such agencies to serve same-sex couples and that any efforts to change adoption laws should be the subject of separate legislation.

"The bill has nothing to do with the right to adopt," Raskin said.

Supporters of the measure said it was a reasonable safeguard for people with strong religious beliefs.

"We need to put protections in this bill if we're going to pass it," said Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel). "Part of the issue here is unintended consequences."

The amendment was defeated 30 to 17.

Some proposed GOP amendments were withdrawn before coming to a vote.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) withdrew his measure that would have allowed small-business owners to refuse to offer their services for weddings or celebrations of gay couples. Pipkin said the amendment was intended to protect caterers, florists, musicians, wedding planners, photographers and bed-and-breakfast owners.

Bill's name changes

Opponents of the legislation won a symbolic victory by persuading their colleagues to alter the name of the bill.

The chamber voted 26 to 21 to strike part of the bill's title, which had been known as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. The title is now the Civil Marriage Protection Act.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's) argued that the bill had nothing to do with religious freedom as it is historically understood. A separate amendment to change the bill's title to Same-Sex Marriage failed on a 28 to 19 vote.

The General Assembly probably will not get the final word on the legislation. If the bill passes and is signed by O'Malley, opponents are likely to take advantage of a provision in Maryland law that allows citizens to petition just-passed state laws to the statewide ballot.

Several Republican senators said Wednesday that their best chance of stopping the legislation now is through the ballot.

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