Same-sex couples in Maryland would have the same full marriage rights as heterosexuals under a bill that cleared the Senate Thursday. If the House of Delegates approves it and the governor signs it, Maryland would be the sixth U.S. state to approve gay marriage.
Opponents, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, promised that if it does become law that a referendum question would be on the 2012 ballot so voters have the final decision.
One Republican, Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard, joined 24 Democrats to pass the bill with 21 opposing. A majority of 24 of 47 senators was needed.
Senators amended the bill to include protections for religious groups and institutions to keep them from being forced to participate in gay weddings. The bill would grant the same title and rights to same-sex couples as married straight couples.
If the measure passes the House, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign it into law.
Activists watching from the balcony cheered after the Senate voted.
Lisa Polyak, who lost a legal challenge to the Maryland law which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, wiped away tears from her eyes and hugged supporters, including First Lady Katie O'Malley.
"It's only halfway, we have another chamber that we have to work through, we have another hearing to go through tomorrow, and a whole other group of legislators to motivate, hopefully, to treat our families equally," said Polyak, who challenged the state's marriage law with her partner but lost an appeal before the state's highest court in 2007.
The Senate debate Thursday _ while hardly vitriolic or heated _ was still deeply personal.
The Senate's only openly gay member, Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, told his colleagues that his partner _ whom he married 10 years ago _ is still a "legal stranger" to him in Maryland.
"This bill is quite simple, it has two parts to it: It reiterates that no religious denomination will ever be required to recognize, perform or celebrate any marriage that is against its beliefs. At the same time, it provides full equality under the law for thousands of same-gender couples in our state, couples like Mark and myself," Madaleno said.
Hawaii approved civil unions for same-sex couples Wednesday, the same day the Obama administration told Congress it would stop opposing legal challenges to the federal law that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples last month.
Opponents were almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic Maryland senators.
Kittleman, the lone Republican to vote in favor of the bill, recalled his father's work with the black community during the civil rights movement. Kittleman, who is white, said his father would invite leaders from the NAACP and other civil rights groups to his house when he was growing up in the 1960s.
"We lived in a very white neighborhood, and we'd have the leaders of the African American community coming to our house talking and I would go to my neighbors' later, I'd go see my friends and their parents would come to me and say 'Allan, why do all those black people come to your house?'" Kittleman said.
Granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples might not be the same as the civil rights movement, Kittleman said, but "it's the right thing to do."
But Sen. Joanne Benson said her father _ who was a "civil rights warrior" and a friend of Kittleman's father _ taught her that marriage can only be between one man and woman.
"My father often talked to us about the importance of marriage," said Benson, D-Prince George's. "One thing he said to us was you get married because one of the most important reasons for marriage is to have children."
Benson was absent during the vote.