ANNAPOLIS — Maryland appears ready to become one of a handful of states in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage after the bill to allow it passed a long-standing hurdle in the Maryland House of Delegates on Friday.
After courting the votes of a couple delegates initially opposed to the measure, House members voted 72-67 to pass the bill. An initial vote count suggested the bill passed with 71 votes, leaving out an affirmative from Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s.
Next up is the Senate, which passed a version of the legislation last year 25 to 21. The bill also has the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who sponsored it.
Approval would make Maryland the eighth state to legalize the same-sex unions, although opponents have vowed to petition the measure to referendum in the November general election.
The House chamber erupted into cheers and applause as the unofficial tally was posted. In recent days proponents, including the governor, said they were still searching for the last few votes to get to the required 71 votes.
“I’m overwhelmed. The support that came in the last several days has been amazing, has been incredible,” said Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, one of the House’s seven openly gay lawmakers.
Crowds of people formed in the marble-floored hallway outside the chamber, cheering key lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael Busch, as they exited.
“This is the right thing to do, I know in my heart,” Busch said wiping tears.
Earlier in the day, the speaker said the gay marriage debate was the one of the most contentious issues he had ever seen before the House.
O’Malley briefly came down from his office on the second floor of the statehouse to congratulate lawmakers and advocates.
“We’re good people and we all want the same thing for our kids,” O’Malley said. “We all want them to live in homes that are loving and caring and stable and protected equally under the law. That’s what we’re all about as a people.”
An amendment from Del. Tiffany Alston, a Prince George’s Democrat who previously opposed to the bill, was accepted by the members, a move opponents suggested secured her vote. It would keep the law from going into effect until any litigation related to a potential voters’ referendum on the measure is processed.
On the House floor, Alston pledged to work with Republicans on the referendum.
“What I know is that right now as a state, it’s time for us to move beyond the issue,” she said.
Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, said he will lead a referendum effort should the bill become law.
Parrott was among a group who last year successfully petitioned a bill to give in-state college tuition to students who are in the country illegally. Voters will decide whether to uphold that law in November.
“If there needs to be referendum effort, I will be a leader in the effort, yes,” Parrott said. “But the team isn’t put together. We’re not ready to launch anything.”
The House added one other amendment Thursday evening, altering the effective date of the bill from October to January 2013.
Del. Wade Kach, a Republican from Baltimore County, said that day that his support was contingent upon that amendment.
Throughout the week, several key lawmakers, including Kach and Republican Delegate Robert Costa, made pronouncements that after personal consideration they would support the legislation.
Democrats John Olszewski and Pamela Beidle also changed their votes to support the measure this week.
Opponents say the bill does not adequately protect religious freedoms and would force educators to teach about gay marriage in public schools.
For others, voting against the bill was a matter of maintaining what they believe is a centuries-old definition of marriage.
“For us, the line in the sand is the term marriage should remain between a man and a woman,” said Del. Justin Ready, R-Carroll.
Delegates rejected amendments to create civil unions, allow parents to opt out of education programs that address same-sex relationships, limit marriage for gay couples over 18 and to put the measure directly on the ballot.
Opponents argued that Democrats rushed the legislation through without proper consideration of amendments once they knew there would be enough votes.
“We should not use brute force strength on such a weighty issue,” said minority leader Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert.
Earlier in the week, opposition lawmakers criticized proponents for dragging their feet in order to have enough time to secure votes.