Last night, when the Maryland Senate passed a marriage equality bill by 25-21, a win was scored for equal protection -- and for church-state separation.

The measure, if approved by the House and signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, will allow same-sex couples to marry in the state.  It’s legislation that isn’t sitting well with the Catholic hierarchy, especially considering the large number of Catholics who hold public office in the state.

The Catholic bishops have always enjoyed a great deal of political clout in the Free State. But it’s clear that some of that power has slipped away. On Monday, the Maryland Catholic Conference organized a few hundred Catholic priests and laity to pressure lawmakers to heed church doctrine and not vote for this measure. That gambit obviously failed.

The marriage bill was backed by a large number of Catholics, sending a loud and clear message that public officials work to serve the public interest, not a sectarian agenda.

State Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola (D), a Catholic, is the primary sponsor of the bill in the Senate. Numerous other Catholic state legislators are co-sponsors. And Gov. Martin O’Malley, also a Catholic, has said he will sign the bill if it lands before him.

O'Malley told The Washington Post that he now sees civil marriage rights for gay couples as a matter of equal protection, and it is not an issue on which he can stand with the Church hierarchy.

He added that his position is different than that of a bishop or a cardinal who must work to protect the faith. “"[T]he vocation I've chosen for these last several years,” he said, “has been a vocation that requires one to be of service to others in an arena of compromise.”

That’s exactly right. Our nation’s laws should never be based solely on private religious beliefs. All religious bodies have a right to speak out on public issues, but elected officials must uphold the principles of the Constitution, not religious doctrine. Legislators represent people of many different faiths (and some who follow no spiritual path at all). Decisions about legislation should reflect the public interest, not personal beliefs about religion.

The proposed measure in the Maryland legislature extends civil marriage to same-sex couples, but leaves the Catholic Church and all other religious denominations free to perform marriages for whomever they choose.

Thus, the separation of church and state was respected in Annapolis this week. I’m happy to see that most Maryland lawmakers recognize this important principle. The bill now moves to the Maryland House of Delegates. We’ll see what happens there.