The Maryland Senate passed a gay marriage bill Thursday by a 25-22 vote, sending it to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who sponsored the bill and is likely to sign it soon. Maryland would become the eighth state to allow same sex couples to marry, though opponents have vowed to force a public vote on the issue in November.
“I know today we are going to make history because we are going to take another important step towards embracing every family in the state of Maryland,” Sen. Richard Madaleno, who is openly gay, said on the floor before the vote.
Now that the bill has passed the General Assembly, its opponents are free to start gathering the 55,736 signatures – 3% of the number of votes cast at the last gubernatorial election – that they need to trigger a referendum. Church groups and conservatives have said they have plans in place to start the petition drive.
A third of the signatures need to be submitted to the State Board of Elections by May 31, with the rest by June 30.
An amendment to the bill submitted by Republican Delegate Wade Kach means no same-sex marriages can occur in the state until the new law takes effect on Jan. 1. Kach voted for the bill, but he said the amendment would allow any referendum to take its course and provide enough time for any legal challenges to its result to be settled.
A similar effort to legalize gay marriage in Maryland failed last year after it died in the House of Delegates without coming to a vote. In July 2011, O’Malley, a Democrat, announced he would include a gay marriage law in his legislative package that would allow religious organizations to refuse to conduct same-sex weddings.
Washington’s Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, signed that state’s gay marriage bill into law Feb. 13, but its opponents there also have promised a referendum challenge.
In the past, gay marriage laws submitted to the public have been voted down. Maine voters rejected a law by a slim margin in 2009 and constitutional amendments defining marriage as being between one man and one woman passed in Arizona and California in 2008.
Supporters of gay marriage, however, point to polls that show increasing numbers of voters back the right for same-sex unions, and they are hopeful that a referendum would go in their favor.
A nationwide CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in February showed 40% of respondents favored allowing same-sex marriages, while 23% supported civil unions and 31% rejected either measure.
The other states that allow gay marriage are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York. Washington and Maryland would become the seventh and eighth if the referendum challenges failed. Washington, D.C., also allows gay marriage.