ANNAPOLIS - The path to legalizing gay marriage in Maryland cleared its biggest hurdle Thursday evening when the largely divided state Senate approved a bill allowing same-sex matrimony.

With a contested 25-21 vote, the Senate capped hours of debate that pitted lawmakers proclaiming religious rights versus those arguing for social progress in a move to become the sixth state to allow gay marriage.

"This will be a memorable day that will improve thousands of families around the state," said openly gay Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Wheaton, who argued that current law essentially reduces he and his partner to second-rate citizens. "He, in my heart, is my spouse in every sense of the word. To the law, he remains a legal stranger to me."

The Senate endorsement is the latest victory for gay-rights advocates in a vigorous national debate over recognition of same-sex couples and the benefits they should be awarded.

The local votes on gay marriage
  • Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery County
  • Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County
  • Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery County
  • Edward Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore and Howard counties
  • Nancy King, D-Montgomery County
  • Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard County
  • Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery County
  • Roger Manno, D-Montgomery County
  • Karen Montgomery, D-Montgomery County
  • Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's County
  • Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's County
  • Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County
  • James Robey, D-Howard County
  • James Rosapepe, D-Prince George's County
  • Ronald Young, D-Frederick County
  • John Astle, D-Anne Arundel County
  • Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's County
  • James DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel County
  • Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's and Calvert counties
  • C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George's County
  • Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George's County
  • Edward Reilly, R-Anne Arundel County
  • Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel County
Not voting
  • Joanne Benson, D-Prince George's County

The bill is expected to be approved in the more liberal House of Delegates, though lawmakers are still trying to round up votes. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has vowed to sign off on the measure.

Making strange bedfellows of sorts, deeply religious progressives -- particularly in Prince George's County -- teamed with Republicans in an attempt to kill the legislation.

"Where does it stop?" asked Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George's. "In the Bible, there were times when there was polygamy. At what point do we ignore the next person who says I'm in love [and not in a legal relationship]?"

The legislation passed the Senate after a handful of Prince George's senators successfully lobbied for an amendment that would exempt churches and religious organizations from performing same-sex weddings or celebrations if they choose.

The bill's passage is set against the backdrop of the Obama administration announcing it will no longer defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- which defines marriage as between a man and woman and precludes same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

Maryland already extends health benefits to same-sex couples who register as "domestic partners," meaning they share a bank account and home address, and agree to sign a contract saying they have been in a relationship for at least one year.

Senators were inundated with pleas from residents to affirm traditional values or toss aside outdated moral standards.

In Montgomery County, most clamored for the latter. But Prince George's lawmakers said their constituents were against allowing gay marriage at a rate of 10 to 1.

"My position is grounded in my religious beliefs," said state Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George's, who missed the vote. "Marriage really is designed for people who love each other and want to have children. Two people of the same sex cannot have children."

Maryland would join the District, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont in recognizing gay marriage.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, among other same-sex marriage opponents, has vowed to pursue a referendum of the measure, likely moving the fate of the law to the ballot booth.