By Ian Simpson
A joint panel of the Maryland legislature approved on Valentines's Day a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, adding to national momentum for gay nuptials following advances in California, New Jersey and Washington state over the last week.
Committee approval of Governor Martin O'Malley's bill on Tuesday moves Maryland closer to becoming the eighth state to legalize gay marriage.
The House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee and the Health and Government Operations Committee approved the measure 25-18 in a joint vote, a judiciary panel spokeswoman said. The measure is expected to go to the full House on Wednesday, she said.
A similar bill died in the House last year following opposition from several African-American lawmakers. O'Malley, a Democrat, said he had rallied support for the measure and needed only a handful of extra votes to secure passage this year.
The Maryland Senate, which passed the bill last year, was expected to consider the measure as early as Friday, said Senator Brian Frosh, head of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The Maryland vote came one day after Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage, although the law will not take affect until June at the earliest. The law may also face a ballot initiative in November sought by opponents.
New Jersey's Senate also approved a gay marriage bill on Monday, with the lower house expected to vote on Thursday. Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, has promised to veto the measure.
Last week, a federal appeals court declared a voter-approved gay marriage ban in California unconstitutional, opening the way for the restoration of same sex marriage in the nation's most populous state.
The seven states which have legalized gay marriage are New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut and Washington state. The District of Columbia also has legalized same-sex marriage.
The Maryland measure would allow same-sex marriages between gay and lesbian couples, although religious institutions would not be required to perform same-sex marriages.
A Washington Post poll published last month showed that 50 percent of Maryland residents supported legalization of same-sex marriage, while 44 percent were opposed.
The level of support in Maryland is the highest ever in a Post poll, and is in line with the rest of the country, the newspaper said.
Maryland Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature, are sharply divided by race on the issue. Among whites, 71 percent back same-sex unions, while 41 percent of blacks support it, the poll showed.
New York-based Reverend Al Sharpton, a national civil rights activist, is lobbying black ministers in Maryland this year to try to reverse the opposition that stymied the proposal in 2011.
(Additional reporting by Alice Popovici; Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)
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