The state Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, with members voting 25 to 22 in favor of the legislation after a relatively brief and focused debate.
Though lawmakers had braced for a session that might run from the morning deep into the evening, opponents put forward only 11 amendments, and a vote on the bill came shortly before 1 p.m. The margin was a strong signal that the chamber would approve the legislation in a final vote, which could come as early as Thursday.
"I feel great," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who shepherded the bill through Wednesday's debate. "There is a historic quality to what just happened."
The bill has emerged as the highest-profile legislation of the 2011 session. The handful of senators who had not declared how they planned to vote became the targets of intense lobbying from both supporters and opponents.
The legislation, which would repeal a 38-year-old provision in Maryland law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, passed with one more than the 24 votes it needed. Opponents acknowledge that it will likely clear the Senate on the final vote.
From there it will move to the House of Delegates, where a committee hearing is scheduled for Friday. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign such a bill if passed by the General Assembly.
The Senate vote was the latest advance for supporters of same-sex marriage. Also Wednesday, the Obama administration announced it will no longer defend the 15-year-old federal law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Five states and the District of Columbia now allow gay couples to wed. A same-sex marriage bill is moving through the Rhode Island Legislature this year, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing the issue there.
The Maryland Senate debate did not become emotional or personal yesterday, as many had feared. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who voted against the bill, said that the respectful discussion was "typical" of Maryland's upper chamber and that he was "very pleased" with the tone of the debate.
That was in part because much of the floor discussion was scripted and focused on the substance of amendments that were technical in nature.
"We did not want the debate to become rancorous," Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs said.
Senators are more likely to explain their philosophical positions on the bill during the debate on Thursday, which could therefore become far more freewheeling.
However, there appears to be no coordinated effort to draw out the debate. Jacobs said she would "love to have a filibuster" but acknowledged she does not think her side could win.
"I don't see anyone changing their minds," she said.
Much of the discussion Wednesday centered on finding an acceptable balance in extending marriage rights to same-sex couples without forcing religious groups that object to participate in the ceremonies.
Raskin and supporters tried to draw that line by distinguishing between services religious groups provide only to their members, and services they extend to the public.
Supporters allowed an amendment saying religious groups don't have to extend insurance benefits to same-sex partners of employees. But they rejected arguments that would let the same groups turn away same-sex couples seeking to adopt children.
They also rejected a measure that would have allowed court clerks to decline to issue marriage licenses if same-sex unions violated their religious beliefs.
Opponents based some of their attack on unintended consequences of changing the definition marriage. Sen. Bryan Simonaire described a children's book that he said was issued in Massachusetts elementary schools that included a picture of two princes kissing.
"Your kindergartner or first-grader will be taught this as law," the Anne Arundel County Republican said. He offered an amendment that would prohibit teaching about gay marriage in public elementary schools.
Raskin argued against the amendment, pointing out that the state board of education issued a ruling Tuesday that courses covering sexuality are not permitted until high school. Simonaire's amendment failed by a vote of 16 to 31.
Several amendments appeared to restate protections that were already in the legislation, causing Raskin to display a flash of irritation.
"I would urge the body not to start finger-painting on this bill," he said at one point.
Supporters of the bill received some unexpected help fending off unfriendly amendments from senators who opposed the underlying legislation. Miller said from the rostrum that some amendments were "going a little too far" and voted to kill several of them.
Opponents did score one victory: The senate voted to change the name of the legislation. The bill was introduced as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act — but the Senate edited it down to the Civil Marriage Protection Act.
The title could become an issue if the bill becomes law, and opponents collect the signatures needed to put it to voters in a referendum. The ballot must include a brief description of the legislation — which in some cases is just the name of the bill.
Opponents tried, but failed, to change the name to the Same-Sex Marriage Act.
After the vote, Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, the only openly gay member of the Senate, embraced Raskin and said "Thank you."