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The Maryland Senate passed the marriage equality bill in a bipartisan 25-22 vote Thursday afternoon, moving one step closer to becoming the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign the bill into law next week, according to a spokesperson.

O'Malley, who made the legislation one of his priorities this year, praised the vote in a statement that said his state "will now be able to protect individual civil marriage rights and religious freedom equally."

"All children deserve the opportunity to live in a loving, caring, committed, and stable home, protected equally under the law," said the governor. "The common thread running through our efforts together in Maryland is the thread of human dignity; the dignity of work, the dignity of faith, the dignity of family, the dignity of every individual."

The Senate passed the bill after two hours of discussion in which opponents attempted to derail the measure with a final series of amendments, as they had tried and failed in a morning session. Sen. Jamie Raskin, the floor leader, fended off the attempts to kill the measure.

Most of the debate focused on a proposal to allow institutions and individuals to refuse to provide services and benefits to same-sex couples on conscience grounds. Sen. David Brinkley of Carroll and Frederick counties read for more than 30 minutes from a letter sent by a constituent and constitutional lawyer, Robin Fretwell Wilson, who is known for ties to antigay groups. Wilson argued for a "very broad conscience exemption," warning about an inevitable "clash" between marriage equality and religious liberty, but the amendment failed by a vote of 30-17.

Sen. Delores Kelley, a Democrat from Baltimore County, delivered a speech mixed with humor and wisdom before voting for the bill. She reflected on the limits of human knowledge, and questioned opponents who argue that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman who give birth to children.

"God didn't create everybody to procreate," she said. "What should happen to those of us who are long past the age of fertility?"

The Civil Marriage Protection Act passed the Democratic-controlled House for the first time last Friday in a bipartisan 72-67 vote, including amendments that would delay its effective date from October 2012 to January 2013, and keep the law from taking effect until any litigation related to a potential referendum is processed. Any changes to the Senate version would have forced the bill back to the House, where approval for a second time would not have been guaranteed. The Democratic-controlled Senate first passed the bill last year in a 25-21 vote.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican who broke with his conference last year to support the bill, voted for it again on Thursday. He invoked his father, the late state senator and civil rights leader Robert H. Kittleman, in remarks before the vote.

"I'm proud to be the son of a civil rights pioneer who is going to vote in favor of the civil rights issue of this generation," he said.

Opponents of the bill have vowed to push for a referendum. According to Reuters, nearly 56,000 signatures would be needed to put the measure on the ballot this November, one third of which would have to be submitted by May 31 and the remainder by June 30.

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Julie Bolcer