Senate to debate same-sex marriage

The state Senate has just one bill on its agenda Wednesday: the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Act.

"We've cleared the desk," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told senators Tuesday morning. "We have nothing else to do tomorrow aside from that bill."

Debate on the contentious measure to allow same-sex couples to marry is expected to run into Wednesday evening and carry over to Thursday. Miller has told senators to clear their weekend schedules in case an expected filibuster extends into Saturday.

The bill, which would repeal Maryland's definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, is widely expected to clear the Senate — but there are no guarantees. Twenty-four senators have declared their support for the measure, the minimum needed for final passage.

Advocates in the House of Delegates say they are close to having the votes for final passage in that chamber, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the bill if it passes.

Opponents had seven amendments prepared as of Tuesday morning, and were considering others. Discussion could take hours, but might not be as lengthy as many have predicted. Typically, opponents gearing up for a major floor fight prepare hundreds of amendments.

Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, a Republican leading opposition to the bill, said she believes "only a handful" of GOP members will stand up and speak against the bill. She said she's expecting speeches from a small group of Democrats who oppose the bill.

Like others, she expressed a desire for the debate to be civil.

"We all love our gay friends in the House and the Senate," Jacobs said. "I hope and pray that this does not get personal and does not get taken personally."

Much of Wednesday's debate is expected to focus on technical issues. Jacobs said she wants to strengthen a provision intended to allow religious organizations to opt out of participating in same-sex ceremonies. The bill could also be amended to allow for civil unions instead of same-sex marriage.