By Justin Snow, reporting from Annapolis.
Gathering in the hall outside the chamber of the Maryland House of Delegates, supporters of marriage equality beamed with excitement on Friday evening. After nearly two hours of debate, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 72-67 to pass the Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012, all but ensuring the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Free State.
It was a major achievement for supporters, who faced disappointment last year when similar legislation was sent back to committee after extensive debate on the House floor. At the time, supporters believed they were only two or three votes shy of the 71 needed for passage.
Choking back tears, Carrie Evans, the executive director of the leading LGBT equality organization in the state, Equality Maryland, said it was hard not to become emotional thinking about how hard everyone had worked. Evans became executive director last fall and has been in Annapolis daily lobbying legislators for their votes.
Evans said she expects quick passage of the bill in the state Senate as soon as next week. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) has vowed to sign the legislation when it reaches his desk.
O'Malley made a similar vow last year, but took a much more hands-on approach this year, making the bill one of his key legislative priorities and placing his chief legislative officer, Joseph Bryce, in a lead role in the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition.
Sultan Shakir, campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition, said in a statement, "Today's vote is a huge step forward for all of us working to make marriage equality a reality in Maryland. There's a lot of work left to do, but momentum continues to grow -- and quickly."
Part of that work involves the likely referendum effort that would follow O'Malley's promised signing of the bill, should the Senate pass it. Opponents have vowed a referendum on the legislation and likely will have little trouble securing the more than 50,000 signatures necessary to place the issue before voters on the 2012 ballot. Both sides have anticipated a multi-million dollar campaign to ensue if the referendum is on the ballot.
This night, however, was about celebrating a job well done.
Speaking to reporters after the session, O'Malley said that the issue was about the dignity of every citizen.
"Our leaders that we elect are moving us forward as one people with care for one another, with love for one another, with understanding and respect for one another," he said.
On Twitter, O'Malley wrote, "Today, the House of Delegates voted for human dignity. Love is an unalienable right. At its heart, their votes were votes for Maryland's children."
Looking forward, he added: "Now, as the Senate prepares to vote, all of us are needed & we're prepared to redouble our efforts."
O'Malley was joined outside the chamber by House Speaker Michael Busch (D- Anne Arundel), who has presided over the House for nearly a decade and played an integral role in the bill's passage.
"To be a part of this historic event is significant," an emotional Busch said. "This is the right thing to do," he added, "I'm convinced in my heart."
The bill's passage in the House came after a relatively civil debate. Although Democrats remained divided on the issue, with those representing largely religious African-American districts in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City voting against the bill, two Republican delegates -- Bob Costa (R-Anne Arundel) and Wade Kach (R-Baltimore County) -- broke with their party to vote in favor.
One Democrat who changed her vote in favor of the bill was Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George's). Last year, Alston was a cosponsor of the bill but voted against it after negative reaction from her constituents. Although Alston voted against the bill in committee again this year, she voted for the bill on the House floor after an amendment she proposed was adopted. Alston's amendment forbids same-sex marriages from taking place as long as litigation is pending over referendum petitions.
A Democrat opposing the bill both last year and this year is Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery), who had run on a platform that included support for marriage equality but enraged activists in 2011 by opposing the bill when it was being considered. Although advocates had been pushing for him to support the bill this year, he voted "nay" tonight.
Chuck Wolfe, the president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect out LGBT candidates, noted the role of out lawmakers in a statement.
"We're very proud of the gay and lesbian delegates whose leadership has been crucial in this debate," he said. "Maryland's lawmakers understand better the necessity of legal marriage for all couples because they serve alongside gays and lesbians whose loving, committed relationships reflect their own."
Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), one of seven out LGBT delegates, said she didn't know for sure if the bill would pass until Alston confirmed her support on the House floor. A practicing Catholic, Mizeur lowered her head in prayer when she entered the chamber earlier in the afternoon.
"Love makes a family but it's marriage that protects it," Mizeur said after the vote. "Every LGBT family in this state is going to go to bed tonight easier knowing that the state’s behind them."
[Photo: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) speaks with reporters following the House passage of the state's marriage equality bill. (Photo by Justin Snow.)]
[CLARIFICATION AND UPDATE: The initially reported "yes" vote count was 71, but, as had happened in New Jersey, a lawmaker in support of the law had a technological glitch that prevented the "yes" vote from being counted. This post was expanded and updated, with the final update at 11 p.m.]