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Legislation allowing same-sex marriage passed the state Senate last Thursday and Gov. Martin O’Malley is set to sign the bill into law Thursday evening, but gay couples eager to tie the knot will likely have to wait at least until November as opponents have vowed to petition the issue to a voter referendum on the 2012 ballot.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 25-22 one year after approving a similar measure 25-21. Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles) voted against it both years.

Last year’s legislation fell a few votes short in the House of Delegates, where Democratic leaders tabled the measure before adding further protections for religious organizations and picking up enough votes to pass the bill 72-67, one vote more than the 71 needed.

O’Malley (D), who sat out last year’s debate but made it a key initiative this year, has scheduled a bill signing ceremony for 5 p.m. Thursday.

“All children deserve the opportunity to live in a loving, caring, committed, and stable home, protected equally under the law,” O’Malley said in a statement shortly after the Senate vote. “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.”

Opponents are expected to easily gather the minimum 55,736 signatures — 3 percent of the votes cast for governor in the 2010 election — required to petition the bill by June 30.

No state’s voters have ever supported a ballot initiative to legalize same-sex marriage. Voters in California amended the state constitution in 2008 to ban gay marriage. The initiative, widely-known as “Proposition 8” that was recently ruled illegal by a federal appeals court.

But despite a history of failure at the polls, St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly said he “would not bet on [the] success or failure” of a same-sex marriage ballot question in Maryland, citing a considerable shift in public opinion in recent years. A 2011 Gallup poll found for the first time that a majority of Americans — 53 percent — supported same-sex marriage, two years after 57 percent of the country was opposed.

More recent polls show that Maryland voters are split on the issue. A January survey by Maryland firm Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found that 49 percent of state voters support same-sex marriage while 47 percent oppose. The poll also found that opinions on the issue tend to be strong — 34 percent “strongly favor” gay marriage while 38 percent “strongly oppose.”

Since 62 percent of Maryland Democrats favor legalizing gay nuptials, according to the Gonzales poll, a quick glance at the state’s voter registration, where Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans, might suggest an easy victory for proponents.

But the issue has revealed a sharp divide among state Democrats That disconnect was reflected in the House, where many black lawmakers from Prince George’s County and Baltimore city, citing opposition from religious leaders and constituents in their home districts, stood alongside conservatives in opposition to the bill.

Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) noted similar opposition from black voters in Charles County along with frustration over the issue’s partisan nature as his reasons for voting against the legislation.

A Washington Post poll conducted last month found 71 percent of white Maryland Democrats support same-sex marriage while 24 percent oppose. In contrast, only 41 percent of the state’s black Democrats favor legalization versus 53 percent in opposition.

Same-sex marriage has the “potential of revealing real divisions in [the Democratic] coalition” given opposition among African-Americans, according to the Gonzales poll, which found that overall blacks oppose gay nuptials by a margin of 60 percent to 33 percent. The poll found whites support the measure 55 percent to 43 percent.

“Opposition to same-sex marriage among African-American voters is what keeps the issue close in the state,” the Gonzales poll states. “If black support was equivalent to that of Democrats, as it is on many issues, same-sex marriage would be in a solid majority in Maryland.”

The divide is also profound between young and older state residents, according to the Post poll, which found 63 percent of adults younger than 40 in favor of same-sex marriage, with 33 percent opposed. Among those 40 and older, 42 percent support and 51 percent oppose gay marriage, according to the Post poll.

“For younger people, this is a very confusing issue,” Eberly said. “They don’t quite get why older people are opposed to it. They grew up in a generation where homosexuality was more accepted. The stigma wasn’t attached to it. They view it as the civil rights issue of their generation.”

Given that President Barack Obama’s presence atop the November ballot is likely to draw both young and black voters to the polls as it did in 2008, the data presents an interesting dynamic for same-sex marriage supporters.

Should voters approve gay unions, it would become a “key legacy” for O’Malley as he moves forward in his political career, Eberly said.

But “if it goes to the ballot box and it is defeated, it will be quite awhile before any member of the assembly is willing to bring it up again,” he added.

In selling his initiative to black voters, O’Malley might have no greater ally than Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who praised Friday’s Senate vote in a statement, calling it “a historic accomplishment that will strengthen families, encourage loving and committed homes for more Maryland children, and fully protect religious freedoms throughout our state.”

“He could emerge as the spokesperson from the governor’s office appealing to folks in Prince George’s County and African-American voters and leaders in Baltimore city,” Eberly said.

For Brown, believed to have his eye on the governor’s mansion following O’Malley’s second term, supporting same-sex marriage would be “a very bold political move and one that would catapult him to recognition,” Eberly said. “It would of course be risky. He could do some damage to his support in the African-American community.”

The issue could even influence whether Obama, as he has in the past, makes a campaign stop in Maryland, considered a “safe” state for Democratic nominees.

Though he has recently described his position on same-sex marriage as “evolving,” Obama remains opposed and instead supports legalizing civil unions for gay couples, a stance that has been criticized by liberals.

“Barack Obama is probably the last Democratic president to ever oppose same-sex marriage,” Eberly said. “It’s sort of become the litmus test for the Democratic president.”

With same-sex marriage on the Maryland ballot, visiting the state in 2012 would almost certainly force the president to address the issue.

“I don’t see how he can” avoid the issue, Eberly said. “He may completely ignore Maryland. If I were his advisors I would say don’t go near Maryland.”

An endorsement from Obama would hold sway in with the state’s black voters — with whom he enjoys 88 percent job approval, according to the Gonzales poll — but even if his stance against same-sex marriage softened, politics might keep him from saying so.

“Given that he wants to win Virginia, I would be very surprised if he weighed in,” Eberly said.

Adding to the intrigue will be the presence of another controversial issue on the 2012 ballot — the Maryland Dream Act, which would provide in-state tuition rates for the children of some illegal immigrants.

“You’ve got the one-two punch” of same-sex marriage and the Dream Act “in an election when normally conservative voters would have no reason to vote” given how heavily favored both Obama and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) are in the state, Eberly said.

“Now social conservatives have every reason to get fired up and eager to get out and vote,” he added. “Having these two issues on the ballot in 2012 puts a tremendous wildcard in this election.”

jnewman@somdnews.com