A joint panel of the Maryland legislature has approved a draft bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Valentine's Day.
The Committee’s approval of the measure in a 25-18 joint vote has moved Maryland closer towards becoming the eighth US state to legalize gay marriage.
The measure is expected to go to the House of Representatives on Wednesday (22 February).
The Maryland vote came one day after Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage, adding to national momentum for gay nuptials following advances in California and New Jersey on the issue.
The Maryland measure would allow same-sex marriages between gay and lesbian couples, but would also hold a discrimination clause for religious institutions, giving them the freedom to refrain from performing same-sex marriages. Similar clauses were also added to the New York Marriage Act and the Illinois gay marriage bill.
A similar gay marriage bill died in the Maryland House of Representatives last year following opposition from several African-American lawmakers. In fact, race has proven to be a sharply divisive factor on the issue of gay marriage in Maryland.
Maryland Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature, are sharply divided by race. A Washington Post poll published last month showed that among whites, 71% back same-sex unions, while only 41% of blacks support it. The poll also indicated that about half of Maryland's residents are in support of gay marriage, while 44% strongly oppose it.
Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has backed the bill but opponents have indicated their desire to place the issue on a ballot initiative, hoping to thwart its legislation. However, the recent Washington Post poll showed that the level of support for the legalization of same-sex marriage is currently at an all-time high in Maryland, which may discourage opponents to follow through with their idea.
New York-based Reverend Al Sharpton, a national civil rights activist, has been lobbying black ministers in Maryland to try and reverse the opposition for gay marriage that stymied the proposal in 2011.