ANNAPOLIS — Debate on the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would give full marriage rights to same-sex couples in Maryland, began Feb. 23 on the Senate floor. Debate is expected to last several days and feature a number of contentious amendments.

A final vote is expected either Friday or possibly over the weekend.

The act would redefine marriage from “between a man and woman” to “between two individuals” and protect churches from performing same-sex unions if the practice violates their religious beliefs. The bill has 18 sponsors in the Senate and 24 senators, including Republican Allan Kittleman of Howard County, have pledged to vote in favor.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, who is leading the debate in support of the bill, said Feb. 22 that he expects opponents to propose amendments allowing businesses like hotels, motels, and restaurants to deny services to gay couples. He also expects an amendment exempting judges and clerks who object to gay marriages from having to issue licenses to gay couples.

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. will let everyone have their chance to debate the amendments to the bill Wednesday, but expects the debate to be kept civil. “We’re going to expect gentlemen-like and lady-like behavior while debating these amendments so we can get through as much of the bill as possible,” Miller said during a Senate session.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, said she hadn’t seen the final versions of the proposed amendments, but she expects Wednesday’s debate to last into the evening. “I expect there will be six or seven amendments offered tomorrow after the committee report is accepted … We’ll ask all our questions to the floor leader and get a lot of our debate out of the way, which will prompt some of the amendments that we’re offering. We’ll break for committee hearings and then come back and continue the debate into the evening,” said Jacobs.

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to begin debate on the issue Friday. Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would sign marriage equality legislation.

If passed, Maryland would join five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage. Maryland currently recognizes same-sex marriages from other states. Opponents have already said they will attempt to bring the issue to a referendum next year.

Even though the subject is contentious, Raskin anticipates this week’s debate will stay civil. “I don’t sense that there’s anyone that really wants to demagogue the issue. I don’t think anyone is really interested in dragging it out … I think every member of the Senate has made up their minds. So people know where they are and the debate will be an opportunity for us to identify the contours of the legislation,” Raskin said. “I’m hoping it will be an uplifting experience for people. It is a chance to make history for equal rights.”