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The Maryland House of Delegates is scheduled to begin debate on a marriage equality bill Thursday as advocates move closer to securing the number of votes needed to pass the legislation. A final vote could come as soon as Friday.
On Thursday morning, Del. Wade Kach from Baltimore County became the second Republican in the chamber to announce his support for the bill. The delegate said his thinking on the issue had "evolved" over recent months and that the enhanced religious exemptions in the bill championed by Gov. Martin O'Malley were "instrumental" to his decision to change his vote.
"While no one event or conversation prompted me to come to this decision, I was significantly moved by the testimony of families -- who are raising children in a loving environment and deserve every right to enjoy the same protections and responsibilities that our laws provide for others," said Wade in a statement.
According to The Baltimore Sun, "The move puts O'Malley closer to the 71 votes he needs for passage in the 141-member chamber, but it is still unclear that supporters have the numbers they need. Lawmakers will begin debating the marriage bill this morning. A final vote could come as soon as Friday."
"Kach's decision is stunning since he voted against the same-sex marriage bill in committee on Monday night and is a co-sponsor of a different measure that would define marriage as between a man and a woman," the Sun reports.
Robert Costa of Anne Arundel County became the first House Republican to support the marriage equality bill when he voted for it in committee Monday night. A joint panel advanced the bill in a 25-18 vote.
The marriage equality bill failed to receive a floor vote last year in the House of Delegates when advocates fell short of support. The bill passed the Senate for the first time last year with bipartisan support.
"We're still moving toward the consensus of 71 votes on marriage equality," O'Malley, who announced in July that he would support full marriage rights for same-sex couples in the state, said at a Baltimore Sun forum Wednesday evening. "If it weren't to pass, I don't see this issue going away."
The Associated Press reports that during the House debate, amendments opposed by marriage equality bill advocates will likely be offered to carve out broad religious exemptions and establish civil unions.
Opposition groups are already collecting signatures for a referendum on marriage equality in Maryland: Only 53,650 signatures are needed to put the issue on the ballot.