By Alice Popovici
(Reuters) - Bills to permit gay marriage in New Jersey and Maryland face key legislative debates and votes on Thursday, highlighting a hot-button issue that is one of several social matters gaining prominence in the election year debate.
In New Jersey, the Assembly takes up the "Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act," which passed the Senate on Monday. The bill is expected to pass the Democrat-dominated lower house as well, but faces a promised veto by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican often talked about as a possible vice presidential candidate.
In Maryland, the House of Delegates will begin debate on the "Civil Marriage Protection Act" sponsored by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
The bill was passed by two House committees on Tuesday, but it remains unclear if O'Malley and his allies have pulled together the 71 votes needed to clear the full House. Comparable legislation failed in the House a year ago when a number of African American Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the measure.
A procedural move in the House on Wednesday morning designed to buy more time before a final vote delayed the start of the floor debate until Thursday.
"This just gives everyone a chance to have a good look at it," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, the Democrat who moved for the bill to be held for a day.
A final vote in the House could come by the end of the week. Should it pass, it will proceed to the Senate, where a bill to allow same-sex marriage passed a year ago.
The action in the Maryland and New Jersey statehouses follows passage of legislation in Washington state. Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the Washington bill on Monday, but it will not take effect until at least June. Opponents are working to gather signatures for a ballot initiative in November that would block the legislation.
A federal appeals court in California earlier this month overturned that state's gay marriage ban, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative. That sets up a possible show down in the U.S. Supreme Court over the matter.
Currently seven states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. In addition to Washington state, they are New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Iowa.
(Writing By Dan Burns; Editing by Greg McCune)