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Md. Senate gives preliminary approval to same-sex marriage bill

ANNAPOLIS — Even as the state Senate resumes debating same-sex marriage after its preliminary approval of a bill on Wednesday, the measure’s opponents are gearing up for a vote in a wider forum.

Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr. said enactment of Senate Bill 116 would spur a referendum drive that will put the issue on the ballot in November 2012.

“The voters ought to have the final say on this and they will, one way or another,” said Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, a House Judiciary Committee member. “When the voting public is given the final say, marriage remains between a man and a woman.”

Senators advanced the bill by a vote of 25-22 around noon, just hours before the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act against constitutional challenge. (See related story, page 13A.)

DOMA, like Maryland’s current law, limits marriage to the union of one man and one woman. SB 116 would broaden the definition to include any two people who are otherwise eligible to wed.

“We are improving upon [marriage] by getting more people into it,” said Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who led the floor debate in favor of the bill.

A final Senate vote could come as early as Thursday, with the House Judiciary Committee expected to open hearings Friday on its same-sex marriage legislation, House Bill 175.

Amendments rejected

The Senate’s preliminary approval of the bill did not come without a fight.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford and Cecil, introduced an amendment that would have permitted court clerks to deny wedding licenses to same-sex couples based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, sought to bar public school curriculums from promoting same-sex marriage through classroom instruction or educational materials.

“This is not a political statement,” Simonaire said. “This is about protecting our children.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., an opponent of same-sex marriage, nevertheless criticized the amendments as departing from the central question before the Senate: Whether gay and lesbian couples should be able to legally wed under Maryland law.

“I think we are going too far with these amendments,” said Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, just before the Senate’s vote. “I think you’re well-intended but we’re getting toward a very slippery slope.”

The Senate rejected the Jacobs and Simonaire amendments, as well as one by Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George’s, to allow religious-affiliated adoption, foster-care and social-services agencies, such as Catholic Charities, to refuse services to same-sex couples.

Raskin, in opposing the amendment, said it would violate Maryland regulations that prohibit any adoption agency in the state from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

“This wipes out most of the principles of adoption law,” Raskin said. “It’s got nothing to do with the [same-sex marriage] bill.

Name change

However, the Senate did adopt an amendment that exempts religious groups from having to provide educational services or insurance coverage for same-sex couples.

It also agreed to change the bill’s name.

The measure was originally called the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act in recognition of the bill’s exemption for religious organizations.

As originally written, clergy members would remain free not to officiate at same-sex weddings if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. An amendment adopted in committee allows religious-affiliated organizations to refuse to provide services and goods, such as catering and their dining halls, for same sex-marriage ceremonies and celebrations.

But Sen. C. Anthony Muse, an opponent of same-sex marriage, called the title a misnomer in light of the failed efforts to exempt individuals with strongly held religious beliefs.

“This bill is not about religious freedom,” said Muse, D-Prince George’s, a Methodist minister. “It’s freedom for clergy persons and religious organizations,” he added. “We are not protecting the individual.”

The Senate approved his amendment to strike “Religious Freedom” from the bill’s title on a 26-21 vote.

However, it rejected his subsequent attempt to change the name from the Civil Marriage Protection Act to the Same-Sex Marriage Protection Act on a vote of 19-28.

Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, hailed Wednesday’s vote to advance the bill. “We are cautiously optimistic that Maryland will soon be part of history by ending the exclusion of loving couples from marriage,” Meneses-Sheets said.

Raskin, too, was optimistic. He said the Obama administration’s change of heart on the Defense of Marriage Act bodes well for the Senate debate on Thursday and eventual enactment of the same-sex marriage bill.

“The federal government is abandoning the single-minded definition of marriage that was imposed n the country like a strait jacket in DOMA,” he said. “For my gay and lesbian constituents, this is a bread-and-butter issue.”

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 that are legally performed elsewhere.