A debate predicted to last the entire day and beyond took only two hours Wednesday morning as Maryland senators voted 25-22 shortly after noon to advance the marriage equality bill to a third and final reading on Thursday followed by a final vote.
During the morning's discussion, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act was subjected to a barrage of proposed amendments. Proposals to exempt religious groups that provide educational services and insurance coverage succeeded, but attempts to obtain exemptions for public officials and teachers failed, as did an adoption amendment that generated intense but controlled discussion.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Republican from Anne Arundel County who proposed to exempt teachers from presenting marriage equality based on their religious beliefs, repeatedly raised the specter of "unintended consequences" to the marriage equality bill, such as school children reading books about same-sex couples.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Montgomery County, led the debate in favor of the marriage equality bill and consistently countered opponents' arguments. At one point, he dismissed an effort by Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, to remove the phrase "religious freedom" from the bill's title because, Muse argued, the bill was focused on legalizing same-sex marriage.
"We are for marriage that includes everybody," said Raskin. "Those people don't say, 'Will you gay marry me?' or 'Will you same-sex marry me?' They're asking, 'Will you marry me?"
As debate came to a close, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., who had promised and managed to deliver a civil discussion, suggested his colleagues were beginning to carry the amendment proposals too far.
The senate is scheduled to hold a third and final reading of the marriage equality bill on Thursday. Supporters have secured the required number of votes from 24 senators, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill. Debate begins Friday in the house of delegates, where backers feel confident of passage.
If passed and signed into law, the bill would make Maryland, with a population of 5.7 million people, the sixth state, in
addition to the District of Columbia, to allow marriage equality.
Opponents of marriage equality have said they will try to repeal the prospective law with a referendum in 2012. However, a similar attempt to challenge the addition of sexual orientation to the state's human rights law was kept off the ballot in the previous decade.