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The gay marriage debate has changed

The Maryland Senate voted last night to remove one of the most glaring vestiges of discrimination from state law by supporting the Civil Marriage Protection Act. That is a crucial step in the direction of equal rights for all, not because it guarantees that this particular piece of legislation will remove the prohibition against same-sex marriage — that is still far from assured — but because of the context in which the vote was taken.

It came a day after President Barack Obama announced that his administration had concluded that the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, a step that could one day lead to the federal recognition of same-sex marriages and all the benefits that entails. And it came after a debate that was markedly civil and empty of overt homophobia. Whatever happens to the Civil Marriage Protection Act in the House of Delegates or at the ballot box, if and when it is petitioned to referendum, the events of this week show that society's views on homosexuality have inexorably changed.

When the minority leader of the Senate, Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, acknowledged in her argument against same-sex marriage that "love between persons" — including those of the same sex — "is a wonderful thing," times have changed.

When another Republican, Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County, stood to support the legislation, saying "It took me a while to get where I am, but I am here because I believe in equal rights," times have changed.

When Republican Sen. Christopher Shank of Washington County stood to object to the legislation not because homosexuality is wrong but because the bill did not afford sufficient protection for wedding photographers and the like who have religious objections to gay marriage, times have changed.

When Republican Sen. E.J. Pipkin of the Eastern Shore said he would vote against the bill — not because he objects to gay marriage, necessarily, but because he would prefer an interim step of allowing civil unions — times have changed.

When a Maryland state senator, Richard Madaleno of Montgomery County, stood on the Senate floor and told the story of his marriage — unrecognized in Maryland — to his husband, Mark, times have changed.

The closest the debate came to the hysteria that has accompanied previous efforts to guarantee equal rights for gays was a warning by Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, that allowing gay marriages would somehow diminish opposite-sex marriages and that it would lead to the "homosexual world view" being taught in schools. But more common was the matter-of-fact appraisal offered by Sen. Ronald Young, a newly elected Democrat from Frederick County, that it's simply "fair and right." He added: "If I lose an election over this vote, so what?"

The very nature of the discussion shows just how far the nation has come since the Defense of Marriage Act was enacted and lends support to the reasoning Attorney General Eric Holder employed in a notice to Congress that the administration would no longer defend the law's ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It was not tenable, he wrote, for the administration to defend it given that the record of the congressional debate on the law "contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships — precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against."

Indeed, moral disapproval of gays is noticeably diminished in mainstream political discourse on the national and state levels. House Speaker John Boehner mustered an objection to the president's new stance on the Defense of Marriage Act not because homosexuality is wrong but because it was a distraction from the important matters of the economy and the budget deficit. Similarly, the debate in the Maryland Senate has focused less on homosexuality than on the state's reasons for sanctioning marriage in general.

Neither the vote in the Maryland Senate nor the president's announcement about the Defense of Marriage Act immediately changes anything. On both the state and federal level, the issue will surely see more advances and setbacks before it is settled for good. But the nature of the debate is critical. If the notion that homosexuality is immoral is removed from the equation, the rationale for denying same-sex couples the right to marry becomes untenably strained. History may or may not record Feb. 24 as the pivotal date for equal rights in Maryland, but it is increasingly clear that the day will come.

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