A bill that would legalize same-sex marriage squeaked through the House of Delegates on Friday night with just one vote above the minimum needed for passage, putting Maryland on the cusp of becoming the eighth state to allow such unions.
Cheers erupted when the gavel dropped on the final 72-67 tally. Within minutes, Gov.Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, walked from his second-floor office to the door of the House chamber, embraced House SpeakerMichael E. Buschand said, "Good job, man."
"We are a good people. We all want the same things for our kids," O'Malley said. Then he extended credit to delegates and activists, many of whom had been skeptical about his commitment to the issue. "These guys did it," he said.
The measure now goes to the Senate, which passed a similar bill last year and is expected do so again. The chamber will likely take up the measure next week.
Should the bill pass in both chambers, activists on both sides believe it would be petitioned to referendum in November. If voters approve the measure, the earliest a gay couple would be able to wed is January 2013, when the law would go into effect.
The victory is significant for O'Malley, who threw the weight of his office behind the measure after a similar bill fell a few votes short in the House last year. The governor had been working the halls of the House office building at all hours to persuade wavering delegates.
In national terms, the Maryland vote caps a week in which proponents of same-sex marriage have scored significant victories with the signing of a similar law in Washington state and New Jersey lawmakers' approval of a marriage bill in New Jersey, though Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it Friday.
Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, predicted that if the Maryland bill wins Senate approval, the momentum would carry over to a referendum this year in Maine and to legislative battles next year in Hawaii, Illinois and Rhode Island.
The days since an 11th-hour hearing a week ago Friday have been filled with high drama. Supporters believed they had the votes Thursday when the measure was scheduled to be on the House floor, but there was a medical emergency. Del. Veronica L. Turner, aPrince George's CountyDemocrat, fell ill and had to be rushed into surgery.
The debate was delayed until later Thursday. The House came back for a rare evening session, but the expected debate did not occur. Instead, the measure was sent to committee to consider amendments.
On Friday morning, Turner spoke to House leaders in a conference call from her hospital bed. Several who were on the call said she wanted to be on the House floor for the vote, despite orders from her doctor to remain in bed.
A decisive vote came from the same Prince George's County lawmaker who helped kill the bill last year by walking out of a voting session. This year, Del. Tiffany Alston voted against the bill in committee and had vowed as recently as Tuesday to vote no on the floor.
But after the House adopted her amendment ensuring that the bill would not go into effect if efforts to bring it to a referendum are being litigated, Alston switched her stand, saying she wants voters to make the final decision.
"I'm supporting this bill because I think the community needs a vote," she told the House.
Two Republicans joined 70 Democrats to put the bill over the top: Dels. A. Wade Kach of Baltimore County and Robert A. Costa of Anne Arundel County. Two Democratic delegates did not vote: David D. Rudolph of Cecil County, who had an excused absence, and Turner.
Debate on the issue was highly emotional on both sides, but the tone was largely civil.
Del.Maggie L. McIntosh, a gay woman who is among the most senior leaders in the House, described the price she had to pay as she struggled to come to terms with her sexual orientation in the 1960s and 1970s.
"I had to forfeit marriage. I had to forfeit having children," said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. She said younger gay people are deciding they won't forfeit parenthood.
"Today they are looking at us in this room and saying, 'I don't want to forfeit marriage.'"
Del. Anne R. Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a lesbian, told the House that her parents wanted her to enjoy a long life and to find someone to love.
"I have, and I want to be married," she said. "Marriage — nothing more, nothing less."
Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who fiercely opposes gay marriage, struck a conciliatory tone.
"I know all of you expect me to get up here and go into a tirade," he said before extending an olive branch. "I will be forever grateful to my friends on the other side of the issue who have extended their hand."
If the General Assembly passes the bill and Maryland voters ratify it in a referendum, he said, "who am I to stand in the way?"