Maryland’s Senate began debating gay marriage today.

The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act will remove gender references in the US state’s marriage laws and give churches the right not to conduct ceremonies.

Debate is expected to last several days and senators who oppose the measure will reportedly introduce controversial amendments, such as proposals to allow restaurants and hotels to ban gay couples.

The support of 24 senators is the minimum needed to advance the bill and a vote is expected between Thursday and early next week.

The House of Delegates will vote on the bill on Friday.

Democratic governor Martin O’Malley is in support of the measure and a recent poll of Maryland voters found a slim majority in favour.

If the bill becomes law, Maryland will be the sixth US state to offer marriage equality. It already recognises gay marriages performed in other states.

A Republican senator, Allan Kittleman, has said he will introduce a civil unions proposal this session instead.

But gay groups have warned against legalising civil unions instead of marriage, saying the partnerships are not adequate and are not widely recognised.