The speaker of Maryland's House vowed that Democrats would try again next year to pass legislation legalizing gay marriage, but the intense lobbying by faith groups against the measure in recent weeks shows that it won't be easy, even in a state known for its liberal politics.
A loose coalition of Democratic legislators failed to cobble together enough votes to overcome opposition from Republicans and religious groups, including the Catholic church and many black congregations, to make Maryland the sixth state to legalize gay marriage.
Lawmakers had planned to vote on the bill in the House, but it was withdrawn instead Friday and effectively killed for the year.
Opposition from some religious groups grew after the Senate narrowly passed its version of the measure Feb. 24. Then some black Democratic lawmakers withdrew their support, while freshman legislators had trouble determining what constituents wanted.
House leaders didn't rely on a traditional whipping operation to line up votes on a hot-button social issue, even after Republicans gains last year.
"The vote would have been very close, make no mistake about it," said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, after it was referred back to committee on a voice vote.
Busch, who had been meeting with his fellow delegates for days seeking votes, said he will try again next year.
Delegate Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, one of the chamber's openly gay members, said supporters were always a few votes short of the 71 needed 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."
The bill's withdrawal bitterly disappointed gay marriage supporters who said they had appeared close to a major victory after the Senate, considered the more conservative of Maryland's two Democratic-controlled chambers, approved a similar proposal.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Rhode Island lawmakers are debating legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.
But the Maryland bill hit trouble in the House two weeks ago after a committee had to delay a series of votes on the issue and some Democrats, including in the black community, began wavering. 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 if the bill had passed, there was a chance that it could have been put to voters in a referendum. Under Maryland law, citizens who gather enough signatures can petition for their right to vote on laws passed by legislators.
The issue divided the state's top three political leaders, all Catholic Democrats. While Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opposed legalizing gay marriage, Busch and Gov. Martin O'Malley supported it.
"I would have hoped that we could have resolved this issue and then let the people decide," O'Malley said.
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. The liberal Human Rights Campaign called voters urging them to ask their lawmakers to support the bill.
Opponents of gay marriage said it was a victory for protecting marriage.
"We took a position to support the existing definition (of marriage) as being between one man and woman and that prevailed," said House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert.
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.
Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore and 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.
Catholic officials, led by The Maryland Catholic Conference, coordinated much of the opposition. After the Senate voted, leading bishops in Maryland signed a letter urging Catholics to contact their legislators and insisting the debate was "not over," according to the Catholic News Service.
Maryland was founded by Catholics in the 17th century, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore says the Catholic population in Baltimore and its nine counties alone is nearly a half million.
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.