State would be eighth to legalize unions, but opponents vow referendum

ANNAPOLIS -- The Maryland Senate passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage Thursday evening, following the House of Delegates' passage of the same bill last week.

The bill now goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who proposed the legislation, making Maryland the seventh state -- eighth including the District -- to legalize same-sex unions.

Same-sex marriage has been at the top of O'Malley's agenda this legislative session, especially after a similar bill died in the House last year. The governor led the push to pass the bill this time around.

"All children deserve the opportunity to live in a loving, caring, committed, and stable home, protected equally under the law," O'Malley said after the Senate passed the bill Thursday.

Opponents of the bill, which would not take effect until January, have promised to collect the 55,726 signatures needed to petition it and get it on the November ballot. If they are successful, they will face another battle since 48.8 percent of Maryland residents favor marriage for same-sex couples, while 47 percent oppose it, according to a January poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.

Since all amendments to the bill were rejected in the Senate -- part of a push by proponents to avoid sending the bill back to the House, where it passed with the minimum number of necessary votes -- many questions that opponents had about the bill were left unanswered, making a referendum all the more important, said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore. He pointed specifically to issues related to religious freedom and education.

The bill places a heavier emphasis on protecting religious institutions than last year's bill by protecting religious leaders from having to perform marriages or other religious rites that relate to marriage if it violates their beliefs.

But many opponents of the bill were not convinced that the protections are sufficient.

Religious institutions could face a barrage of lawsuits for excluding gay couples from their events, said Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington County, or could risk losing their tax-exempt status as a result of teachings that don't support same-sex marriages, said Sen. David Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick counties.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel County, said he was worried about the effect the bill would have on the material taught in schools.

"In legal terms, homosexual marriages will be equal to heterosexual marriages, thereby dictating equal inclusion in our curriculums," he said, offering as an example a children's book about two gay princes who get married.

Meanwhile, advocates of the bill framed same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue.

The bill will eliminate "state-sanctioned discrimination" against same-sex couples and their families, said Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery County. "This is the civil rights issue of our generation."