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The Maryland Senate passed legislation Thursday night allowing same-sex marriage, setting the stage for a likely challenge to the law at the ballot box this November.

Twenty-five senators voted for the bill, with 22 voting against it. The legislation narrowly passed the House last week. Once Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a key sponsor of the bill, signs the legislation, Maryland will become the eighth state with a same-sex marriage law.

“It’s a remarkable day for the people of the state of Maryland, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, who is openly gay.

Similar legislation passed the Senate, 25-21, last year, but failed to get a floor vote in the House. This year’s bill includes additional language exempting religious organizations from having to provide services to same-sex couples.

“The common thread running through our efforts together in Maryland is the thread of human dignity; the dignity of work, the dignity of faith, the dignity of family, the dignity of every individual,” O’Malley said in a statement shortly after the Senate vote.

Opponents have pledged to take the issue to voter referendum, and its appearance on the ballot this fall is all but certain. What’s far from certain, however, is how the measure will fare at the polls.

“There is still a lot of work to do over the coming months, but we think voters will ultimately agree that all children, no matter who their parents are, should be protected under the law,” said Sultan Shakir, campaign manager for the group Marylanders for Marriage Equality. “Marriage equality is about building strong, stable families.”

While same-sex marriage has a history of failing at the ballot box in other states, Maryland’s outcome could be influenced by several factors, including the Republican presidential nominee and black voter turnout, experts say.

If an extreme conservative like Rick Santorum gets the GOP nomination, moderates and independent voters might be turned off and decide to stay home on Election Day, while motivating Democrats to vote, said Donald Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This would motivate Democrats to vote, which could be good for same-sex marriage support, he said.

Likewise, if a more moderate candidate such as Mitt Romney is nominated, right-wing voters are likely to stay home, which also would help the pro-same-sex marriage vote, Norris said.

The African-American vote could be another decisive factor, as older black voters, who tend to oppose same-sex marriage, could combine with the conservative vote and bring down the issue, Norris said.

But the older vote also could be canceled out by younger black voters turning out to support President Barack Obama, said Laura Hussey, professor of political science at UMBC.

Same-sex marriage advocates could increase support by framing the issue in terms of happiness, asking “Do you want gay and lesbian couples to be happy or don’t you,” Hussey said, adding it was a strategy that seemed to work on some legislators.

“If that line [of argument] becomes more prevalent, you might see public response go the same way,” she said.

Marylanders remain split on same-sex marriage, with 49 percent supporting it and 47 percent opposed, according to a poll conducted in January by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

In the General Assembly, the division in the two chambers, especially in the House, mirrored that in the general public.

The 72-67 House vote was preceded by nearly two hours of debate Feb. 17, as supporters and opponents explained their votes and encouraged their colleagues to vote with them.

Del. Wade Kach (R-Dist. 5) of Cockeysville, who announced his support of the bill this week, said he was moved by the testimony of same-sex couples at a hearing Feb. 10, particularly a couple where one parent had legal custody of their child but the other did not.

“As a pro-life legislator, I believe it's my responsibility to make certain children are taken care of,” Kach said.

The Senate’s debate followed a similar track, with several amendments proposed that were all voted down. Bill sponsor Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park warned senators that any amendment to the bill would send it back to the House and likely kill it.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Dist. 31) of Pasadena read a recent children’s book, a fairy-tale story about a same-sex couple called “King & King,” as an example of the sort of books he worried schoolchildren would be exposed to if more protections weren’t added to the bill.

Later, Sen. David Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market spent more than 30 minutes reading a letter from a constituent opposed to the legislation.

When the final tally was taken, it was nearly identical to last year’s Senate vote.

“This is history, right here,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore, a bill supporter. “I’m convinced it will go to the voters, and I’m convinced we will win.”

For supporters, winning a referendum effort will mean making sure there are discussions about the law in homes and churches.

“[We’ll be] explaining to people it’s not about getting married in the church, it’s about getting married in the courthouse,” said Kevin Nix, spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

Opponents expect to gather the necessary signatures for referendum — about 56,000 — quickly, in part because they’ll be using churches to get the word out, said Pastor Derek McCoy, director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance.

The alliance’s goal will be to make clear that the law is redefining marriage, McCoy said.

Either way, the results will likely be too close to predict, Norris said.

“It’s going to be a squeaker,” he said.

dleaderman@gazette.net