ANNAPOLIS — Legislation to permit same-sex marriage in Maryland will be debated on the floor of the state House of Delegates after winning narrow approval Friday from the House Judiciary Committee, with its chair, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., casting the decisive 12th vote.
The coming House debate follows Senate approval of the proposed Civil Marriage Protection Act last week on a 25-21 vote.
If the House passes the measure without amendment, the same-sex marriage legislation would go to Gov. Martin O’Malley who has said he would sign it into law. If enacted, it would make Maryland the sixth state, in addition to Washington, D.C., that permits same-sex marriage.
The law would go into effect Oct. 1.
Equality Maryland, a gay-rights group that has lobbied hard for same-sex marriage, hailed the committee’s vote but said the group’s fight is not over.
“With this favorable vote from the committee … we’re one step closer to providing not only the same benefits, but also the respect and dignity to the thousands of gay and lesbian couples in Maryland,” said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, Equality Maryland’s executive director, in a statement. “We remain cautiously optimistic about the upcoming vote on the House floor.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage say that if the bill is enacted they will mount a petition drive to bring the issue to Maryland voters via referendum in November 2012.
Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., a committee member who opposes same-sex marriage, said he would participate in the drive. The Anne Arundel County Republican said the effort would cost several million dollars and donations would come from across the country.
Before its vote of approval, the committee rejected an amendment that would have permitted civil unions — but not marriage — between same-sex couples.
Del. Tiffany T. Alston, who introduced the ill-fated amendment, said civil union “strikes a balance” between supporters of same-sex marriage and those who believe gays and lesbians are entitled to the same rights as married couples but without the imprimatur of “marriage.”
Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, who had introduced legislation in a recent session, opposed the effort by Alston, D-Prince George’s.
“The public understanding of the [same-sex marriage] issue has matured,” said Simmons, D-Montgomery. “I think it’s time to get on with it” and enact same-sex marriage, he added.
The committee also rejected amendments that would have changed the bill’s name from the Civil Marriage Protection Act to the Same-Sex Marriage Act or the Civil Marriage Act.
Del. Michael J. Hough, who introduced both amendments, said either name change would have provided a more accurate description of what the measure would do.
Hough, an opponent of same-sex marriage, said accuracy is important because the name of the bill will appear on the ballot question if the law passes and is challenged in a referendum.
The change to the Same-Sex Marriage Act, for example, would let voters know that the issue is same-sex marriage, not civil marriage, which everyone is for, said Hough, R-Frederick and Washington.
But Simmons, citing the intense media attention to the issue, said a name change would have no effect on the public’s understanding should same-sex marriage be placed on the ballot in November 2012.
“Everyone will know what they’re voting on,” Simmons said.
Del. Neil C. Parrott, an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage, introduced an amendment that would have permitted polygamy and another that would have permitted close family members to marry.
“I don’t think we should discriminate,” said Parrott, R-Washington, in quoting an argument made by same-sex marriage supporters.
The committee rejected the polygamy amendment. Parrott withdrew the other amendment, but not before Simmons said, “I urge a vote against incest.”
Parrott told the committee that the latter amendment was introduced “tongue in cheek.”
The same-sex marriage bill’s fate in the House committee was very much in doubt this week leading up to the vote.
Two panel members who sponsored the legislation nevertheless refused to cast their votes until House leaders addressed the delegates’ concerns about potential school-budget cuts in Baltimore and Prince George’s County. O’Malley’s proposed budget for next year would cut $15.3 million from Baltimore schools and $20.9 million from Prince George’s schools.
Dels. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore City, and Alston were absent from two scheduled committee votes on the same-sex marriage measure, Senate Bill 116. Without the yea of at least one of the women, the bill would not have received the 12 votes needed for committee approval.
Carter, who voted in favor of the bill, said she had received assurances that her concerns about school funding would be addressed.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said no deals had been struck to ensure committee approval of the same-sex marriage bill.
Alston voted against the measure.
The proposed legislation would remove Maryland’s statutory limitation on marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Clergy members would remain free not to officiate at same-sex weddings if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Religious-affiliated organizations also would be permitted to refuse to provide services and goods, such as catering and their dining halls, for same sex-marriage ceremonies and celebrations.
The bill further exempts religious groups from having to provide educational programs, counseling services, retreats or insurance coverage for same-sex couples.
In addition to Washington, D.C., same-sex marriages are legally performed in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Currently, Maryland recognizes as valid within the state same-sex marriages lawfully performed in other jurisdictions.