The Maryland marriage equality bill cleared a crucial hurdle Thursday evening when senators voted 25-21 to pass the bill on the third and final reading. The measure now heads to the house of delegates, where approval is anticipated. Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill.
Senators convened in the evening for less than one hour of debate, passing the bill shortly before 6:30 p.m. Check back with Advocate.com soon for reactions on the historic approval.
The final approval capped two days of debate in the senate. In an earlier session Thursday morning, senators for and against the marriage equality bill presented their arguments. Speakers in support included Rich Madaleno, the first openly gay Maryland state senator, who spoke poignantly of what the proposal means for the two children he shares with his partner, Mark.
Madaleno told a story about parenthood in which his young daughter asked, "Daddy, will you hold my wishes for me?"
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an opponent of the bill who tried but failed to advance an amendment Wednesday to exempt public school teachers from teaching marriage equality, continued with his dire warnings of "unintended consequences" if the measure is passed.
Simonaire decried that February 24, 2011, would be remembered as "the day traditional marriage died in Maryland."
Also speaking in the morning session was Allan Kittleman, the lone Republican senator to break with his conference and support the bill. Kittleman invoked novelist Victor Hugo in calling the marriage equality bill "an idea whose time has come."
Sen. Robert Zirkin took care to correct an assertion from Sen. E.J. Pipkin that every state with marriage equality had previously approved the "in-between" step of civil unions. Pipkin called the bill "extreme" because it would deny Marylanders the chance to "test-drive" civil unions, although he failed to mention that civil unions have proven inadequate for same-sex couples in states such as New Jersey.
Zirkin said that supporting marriage equality would be his "easiest vote in 13 years."
Senators concluded the morning with a discussion of the fiscal impact of approving marriage equality.
The marriage equality bill won initial senate approval Wednesday in a 25-22 vote after two hours of debate during which Sen. Jamie Raskin led arguments for marriage equality. Debate concluded around the same time the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the constitutionality of a section of the Defense of Marriage Act.
On Wednesday senators approved amendments to the bill including exceptions for religious organizations not to promote same-sex marriage in services such as counseling and retreats, and to decline to provide insurance to same-sex couples in programs offered by religious groups such as the Knights of Columbus. Senators also approved an amendment to strike the words "religious freedom and" from the title of the bill, previously known as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. The bill is now called the Civil Marriage Protection Act.
Final approval is widely expected in a senate vote on Thursday, according to The Washington Post, which reported that Republican leaders considered passage "all but certain" and had no plans for a filibuster.
Advocates expressed cautious optimism following the initial approval Wednesday. The bill still needs to pass the house of delegates, which begins debate Friday, although approval is anticipated in that chamber.
"Gay and lesbian couples in Maryland can breathe a sigh of relief after today's events on the senate floor," Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, said Wednesday. "With strong leadership from Sen. Jamie Raskin, we took a big step forward. We are cautiously optimistic that the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of civil marriage will soon be passed along to all Maryland's couples."
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.