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Gov. Martin O’Malley’s most high-profile initiative narrowly cleared its largest hurdle Friday evening when the Maryland House of Delegate’s voted to legalize same-sex marriage, clearing the way for the state to become the eighth to allow gay unions.

Following nearly four hours of impassioned debate, applause and exultant cheers erupted on the House floor when the final vote flashed across the chamber’s electronic tally board — 72 for, 67 against.

The state Senate, which approved a similar bill last year, is expected to approve the measure sometime this week before sending it to O’Malley (D), who has made legalizing same-sex marriage a key component of his legislative agenda.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted Tuesday afternoon 7 to 4 to send the bill to the Senate floor, according to published media reports.

“This is a significant legislative milestone,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “If things go the way they went in the Senate last year then Maryland is going to become the eighth state to recognize same-sex marriage and, perhaps more significantly, it will be part of an even smaller subset of those states that legalized it through their legislature rather than the court system.”

The House vote came less than a year after a near-identical measure came up a few votes short in the House after passing 25-21 in the Senate, long considered the more-conservative chamber.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) called the vote “very unfortunate.”

“Many in the faith community, both constituents and clergy, came to lobby against this bill from Southern Maryland and all across the state, but this battle is not over and if we don’t get another chance to vote on it here in the legislature, I think the citizens of Maryland will have the final say on this matter.”

The Senate is expected to approve the bill this week and send it to O’Malley for his signature.

“Animosity that was there last year does not appear to be as strong this year,” Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) said.

While he intends to continue voting against the bill, Miller said the 25-22 tally from last year “will probably be a good barometer” for support in the Senate. He added that “one or more” Senate Republicans intend to support the bill.

Opponents have vowed to round up enough petition signatures to place the issue on the 2012 ballot alongside a 2011 bill that would provide in-state college tuition to the children of some illegal immigrants.

“There is still work to be done and marriage equality has not yet been achieved in Maryland,” O’Malley (D) said in a statement after the vote. “Wherever we happen to stand on the marriage equality issue, we can agree that all our children deserve the opportunity to live in a loving, caring, committed, and stable home, protected equally under the law.”

Only two Southern Maryland delegates voted in support of the bill — Del. Peter Murphy (D-Charles) as expected, and, in a major surprise, Del. John Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s).

Bohanan had repeatedly told anyone who asked that he would not support the bill. He intended to vote against the legislation last year and was expected to do so again.

But a last-second change of heart counted him as one of the 72 supporters, despite the potential political ramifications he could face in a district trending Republican “in a rather significant way,” Eberly said.

During a 2010 election cycle marked by widespread dissatisfaction with Democratic policies, Bohanan, a well-respected lawmaker who had risen to become one of the legislature’s key voices on budget matters, found himself in a tight duel with Republican challenger and political neophyte Erik Anderson.

While Bohanan’s vote on same-sex marriage might have been “forward-looking,” it will also likely generate significant blowback in his district, Eberly said.

The switch even left the House’s voting system baffled — a technical glitch initially left Bohanan’s vote as the only one left unrecorded, though the chamber’s electronic tally board did display a green light next to his name, signifying a ‘yay’ vote in support.

“I wasn’t aware of it, so I was very happy to see he took a green vote on it,” Murphy said. “I’m surrounded by red [nay votes], and I look up there and I have another green with me.”

Murphy announced publicly he was gay during last year’s same-sex marriage debate, joining the legislature’s seven other openly gay lawmakers, six of them delegates.

But Murphy has emphasized that it was provisions protecting religious institutions from wedding same-sex couples — not his sexual orientation — that served as the primary factor in his decision to support the bill.

“I would never support a bill that would give certain rights to one group and take them away from another group,” Murphy said. “If it did not have that in there, I would not have been able to support it.”

Though he has spent the entire 2012 session as a publicly gay delegate, Murphy said the debate over same-sex marriage had not changed for him personally. Generally, he did notice some minor differences.

“I think there was a lot more talk about how important this bill was to families, particularly those same-sex couples that are raising children,” Murphy said. “It really does protect those families.”

“Always optimistic” the bill would pass the House, Murphy said he is similarly confident it will survive a referendum, “particularly if younger people come out to vote because that seems to be a group that really gets it, that all families are entitled to the same privileges under the law.”

House leaders were confident early last week they had the 71 votes needed for passage, but the hospitalization of Del. Veronica L. Turner (D-Prince George’s) left them one vote shy and spurred a last-ditch effort to round up additional support.

O’Donnell twice sought to delay the proceedings Friday afternoon, which he said were being unnecessarily and unusually expedited. He first asked that the debate be postponed so an attorney general’s opinion could be obtained on the legality of an amendment offered by Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George’s), which delayed the bill’s effective date until the resolution of any future litigation involving the validity of a voter referendum.

Later, O’Donnell asked House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to delay the final vote until Monday, but Busch denied the request.

Staff Writer Daniel Leaderman contributed to this report.

jnewman@somdnews.com