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Same-sex marriage bill passes Senate committee by 7-4 vote

ANNAPOLIS – Legislation to permit same-sex marriage in Maryland will be debated next week on the floor of the state Senate after winning approval Thursday from the Judicial Proceedings Committee on a 7-4 vote.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he expects a freewheeling debate on the measure, culminating with a vote by Monday, Feb. 28.

“I want everybody to have their say, proponents and opponents,” said Miller, D-Prince George’s and Calvert. “I anticipate it will be a very close vote.”

The measure needs 24 votes to pass the full Senate. As of Thursday afternoon, 23 senators had said they supported it and three had not expressed an opinion.

The committee’s vote came after it adopted a controversial amendment that will permit religious-affiliated organizations to deny the use of their “facilities, goods or privileges” for same-sex marriage ceremonies and celebrations.

The bill already provided that clergy members would not have to officiate at same-sex weddings if doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin said an exception for affiliated groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, is in keeping with the constitutional right to free religious exercise.

“We are striking the exact right balance” between the right of same-sex couples to marry and the religious freedom of sectarian organizations not to endorse those marriages, said Raskin, D-Montgomery.

Raskin’s amendment was opposed by two of the measure’s fellow supporters on the committee. Sens. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin and James Brochin, both Baltimore County Democrats, called the exception too broad, saying it could permit groups with only minor religious affiliations to discriminate against same-sex couples.

“I’m not sure how we can license that in law, that kind of discrimination,” Zirkin said. “You’re inviting all kinds of lawsuits.”

Brochin said he agreed that religious-affiliated groups should not be compelled to offer their facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies, but that allowing them the same latitude for subsequent celebrations, such as anniversaries, was too broad.

“It opens up a can of worms,” Brochin said.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a committee member who opposes same-sex marriage, said Raskin’s religious exception was not broad enough. The Washington County Republican sought assurances from Raskin that private businesses, particularly individuals in business for themselves, would not be sued for turning down a same-sex wedding assignment.

“This is America,” Raskin responded. “There is always a threat of litigation.”

After approving Raskin’s amendment, the committee turned to the same-sex marriage bill.

The proposed Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, Senate Bill 116, would remove Maryland’s statutory limitation on marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Instead, it would allow any two people to marry unless the union is otherwise barred by law.

The seven senators who voted for the measure were Raskin; Brochin; Zirkin; committee chair Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery; vice chair Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore; Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery and Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George’s.

The four senators who voted against the bill were Shank; Joseph M. Getty, R-Baltimore County and Carroll; Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil and Harford; and Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County.

On the House side, Del. Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, this week introduced similar legislation. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear HB 175 on Feb. 25.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said he would sign the legislation if passed by the General Assembly.

In addition to Washington, D.C., same-sex marriages are legally performed in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Maryland currently recognizes same-sex marriages from those jurisdictions, based on an advisory opinion issued last year by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

Daily Record reporter Nicholas Sohr contributed to this article.