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House nears vote on same-sex marriage bill

ANNAPOLIS — Gay marriage supporters were still working Tuesday to line up the votes needed to pass the measure in the House of Delegates, which put off debate until Wednesday.

Backers hope to win passage of the Senate-approved bill and send it by the end of the week to Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has said he will sign the bill.

Members of the House’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Caucus appealed to their colleagues Tuesday in an attempt to find the 71 votes they need for passage.

“It will come as no surprise to any of you that this is a crucial week for the six of us,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “We write to ask you on behalf of our families and thousands of families headed by same-sex couples in our state to vote yes on this legislation.”

The bill would grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples, making Maryland the sixth state to enact such a measure. The Senate added provisions designed to protect religious groups and institutions from having to provide services at gay weddings, like catering or renting reception space.

While the Senate almost seamlessly passed the measure two weeks ago on a 25-21 vote after limited debate, the road has proved rockier in the House.

Two delegates stalled House efforts last week when they deliberately skipped a planned committee vote — ultimately delaying committee action until last Friday.

Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, said at the time she was withholding her support to leverage more funds for Baltimore schools and to advance a bill that would balance the child-custody rights of divorced parents. She eventually voted for the bill in committee.

Delegate Tiffany Alston, D-Prince George’s, said she was having trouble balancing her personal views and pressure from constituents. She ended up voting against the bill in committee.

Gay marriage advocates have struggled to find all the votes they need in the House.

“The number’s a moving target,” said Delegate Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, one of the chamber’s six openly gay members.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, camped out in a back room of the House Judiciary Committee twice last week as delegates poured in to meet with him.

Delegates have said Busch and his staff are actively counting how many delegates will vote in favor of the bill.

Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have made clear to rank-and-file Democrats, however, that any changes to the Senate version would ultimately kill the measure this year.

“There’s too much mystery, too much secrecy,” Carter said. “I do have a problem with the fact that we can’t amend it. It’s a lame argument to say that we have to send the Senate a bill back exactly the way they sent it to us.”

Same-sex marriage opponents packed the House viewing gallery Monday night and cheered when Delegate Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, announced their presence.

“If the House would join me in welcoming all the folks in the state who came down tonight in defense of marriage as between a man and a woman, we thank you so much for being here tonight,” said Dwyer, who is coordinating opposition in the House.

In some cases it has been the gay marriage’s nominal supporters who have hamstrung efforts.

Alston, a co-sponsor of the House gay marriage bill, said she will vote against it during the final House tally after hearing from her constituents.

Delegate Melvin Stukes, D-Baltimore, said that when he signed onto the bill he believed it would legalize civil unions, not grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples. He said Tuesday he will vote against the measure

“It was my understanding I was supporting a civil unions bill, otherwise, my name never would have been on it,” Stukes said.

And gay marriage supporters nationwide, including many high-profile Democratic activists, lashed out at Delegate Sam Arora when the Montgomery Democrat wavered in support of the same-sex marriage bill that he had signed onto.

Arora, a freshman, later said he would vote in favor of the bill, although he declined to elaborate on the statement at the time.