A bill to legalize gay marriage in Maryland fell short Friday after supporters failed to find enough votes to overcome Republican opposition and misgivings by some Democrats in the deeply Catholic state.
A final vote had been expected in the House, but the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber's leaders instead withdrew it. A confluence of factors helped fracture Democratic support, including a split among black lawmakers, the opposition of some churches and trouble for some freshman lawmakers in determining what their constituents wanted.
"The vote would have been very close, make no mistake about it," said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, minutes after lawmakers returned the bill to a House committee on a voice vote, effectively killing it for the year.
The unexpected move came after two weeks of intense lobbying that included Busch meeting with delegates over the past several days to try and secure votes. He said Democrats would try again next year.
The bill to make Maryland the sixth state to allow gay marriage had already passed the Senate, and the governor said he would have signed it. Before this year, measures to extend full marriage rights to same-sex couples had never made it as far.
The Senate narrowly approved the measure two weeks ago, voting 25-21 to send the bill to the House after adding language to keep religious groups from being forced to serve gay weddings.
But the bill hit trouble in the House two weeks ago after a committee had to delay a series of votes on the issue. It ended with Busch and his lieutenants deciding it was better to save a final vote for next year, rather than put delegates on the record with a failed vote this year.
Even some supporters predicted that, if passed, the measure would have been petitioned to referendum.
"I would have hoped that we could have resolved this issue and then let the people decide," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, after the House killed the measure. "I think an issue like this was bound to go before the people in a referendum, and I would have hoped that we would have been able to have accomplished that today."
Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.
Proposals to increase that number have caused tempers to flare. Heated confrontations took place between supporters and opponents at a hearing this week on legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island.
National groups on both sides of the debate had converged on Annapolis in the past week, with the National Organization for Marriage pledging to spend $1 million to oppose the re-election of supporters of the bill. Meanwhile, the liberal Human Rights Campaign telephoned voters to urge them to ask their lawmakers to support the bill.
Opponents said the decision Friday was a victory for defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
"We took a position to support the existing definition as being between one man and woman and that prevailed," said House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert.
Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to several reasons why the bill wound up being withdrawn. Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, said House supporters failed to do a good job of keeping track of where each of the party's members stood, hampering efforts to find votes. Democrats hold 98 seats of the 141-seat House.
"That system was not in place for this bill, and I think that there just wasn't enough time to get a good count," Anderson said.
The pickup of six seats by Republicans in the last election also helped erode support, said House Environmental Matters Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, one of the chamber's eight openly gay members.
"If in the general election we had retained all of the Democratic seats I think we would be declaring victory today," a tearful McIntosh said.
House Democratic leaders also said they failed to secure the votes they needed from black lawmakers.
"They took the black votes for granted because they're so used to having it," said Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore. "This issue was too big, people's connection to church and religion were too deep."
Several of the chamber's 33 black lawmakers took opposite sides during Friday's debate.
Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George's, said he would represent his majority-black district's wishes even if it conflicted with his personal views.
"If I want to truly represent my district I vote red (no)," Walker told his colleagues.
However, Delegate Keiffer Mitchell _ the grandson of the legendary NAACP lobbyist Clarence Mitchell Jr. _ said the debate was about civil rights.
"It is a civil rights issue when we as a state and a government deny equal protection under the law," said Mitchell, D-Baltimore.
But Delegate Emmett Burns, D-Baltimore County, a black pastor and opponent of gay marriage said the struggles of gays could not match the violence against blacks during the civil rights era.
"Those who desire to ride on our coattails are historically incorrect," Burns said.
Still, because no roll-call vote was taken on the issue, it was hard to determine where exactly the Democratic rift fell. Anderson, also a black lawmaker, said the vote had less to do with race and more to do with differences between conservative and liberal members of the party.
Delegate Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, another of the chamber's openly gay members, said supporters were always a few votes short of the 71 and that many factors blocked their way.
"I think in some cases it was the churches back home," Kaiser said. "I really can't explain people's motivations. Many people who promised us their votes changed their minds."
Catholic officials, led by The Maryland Catholic Conference and their lobbyist Mary Ellen Russell, coordinated much of the opposition.
Such opposition would weigh heavily on both Republicans and Democrats, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The Catholic church "can get out the faithful to lobby very, very heavily," Norris said. "So it doesn't surprise me that in Maryland, a progressive state, that gay marriage can't yet garner the votes needed."
Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Annapolis contributed to this report.