By Alice Popovici
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland--Debate resumes on Thursday in the Maryland Senate on a bill that could make the state the eighth in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, although opponents plan to introduce a number of amendments to the measure.
The bill, which has been approved by the state's lower House of Delegates, could be put to a vote by Friday when it is expected to pass the Senate, legislative leaders said.
"I hope to have it passed in its entirety by Friday," said Senate President Thomas Mike Miller Jr. Miller said he personally opposes the bill but would not stand in the way of its passage.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has promised to sign the bill if passed. His office could not predict when a signing ceremony might take place.
While still controversial, same-sex marriage has been gaining acceptance nationally in recent weeks. Washington state signed it into law and the New Jersey legislature passed it through both houses, although it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
Also, an appeals court has overturned California's ban on gay marriage, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative.
Same-sex couples can marry in the District of Columbia and in six states -- Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York. Washington state will join the list in June unless opponents can stop it through a ballot initiative.
Amendments being considered in Maryland include a change to the effective date of the proposed law, to October 1, 2012, from January 1, 2013, and a broadening of its religious liberty protections.
Under the current bill, a religious group or a nonprofit organization sponsored by a religious group is not required to provide services that violate its religious beliefs unless it receives federal funding.
For example, the protections would allow the Knights of Columbus to refuse to rent a meeting hall for a same-sex wedding and not require a church counseling service to counsel same-sex couples, supporters say.
State Senator Edward Reilly, a Republican who opposes the bill, said on Wednesday additional amendments would help define the religious protections.
"We are concerned that the bill will have an adverse effect on some businesses, churches and clergy," he said.
Democratic state Senator Jamie Raskin, a supporter of the bill, said: "Any effort to amend the bill at this point is an effort to kill the bill."
Should the measure pass and become law, opponents say they will push for a voter referendum to repeal it.
They would need nearly 56,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. They would need to submit one-third of those signatures by May 31 and the remainder by June 30 to get the measure on the November 6 ballot.
Maryland's state Senate voted in favor of a similar bill last year but the measure died in the lower house.
(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst)
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.