The Maryland Senate last night gave preliminary approval for a gay marriage bill in the state, 25 votes to 22.
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 House of Delegates will vote on the bill on Friday.
If the bill turns into a law, Maryland will be the sixth US state to offer full marriage equality. The state recognises gay marriages performed in other states.
However, a Republican senator, Allan Kittleman, has suggested that the state should adopt a civil union bill, similar to the one signed into law by the governor of Hawaii last night.
Yesterday, the White House revealed that president Barack Obama’s administration would not defend a case brought against the government arguing that the Defense of Marriage Act is unfair. The president, through his attorney general said that defining a marriage as being between a man and a woman is unconstitutional.
Other groups, in particular Congressional leaders could still defend the legal challenges to the law.