A Maryland Senate panel on Thursday approved a gay marriage bill and sent it along to the full Senate, the AP reported.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved the legislation with a 7-4 vote.

Committee members also attached an amendment to the bill designed to protect religious groups from having to perform gay marriage ceremonies or provide services for them.

After the vote, Democratic Senator James Rosapepe announced he would be voting in favor of the bill.

“I intend to vote for the bill as it was reported out of committee with a strengthened conscience clause to respect the views of religious denominations which do not recognize same sex marriage,” Rosapepe wrote in an email.

The full Senate could vote on the bill as early as next week.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, a Republican, said she expects an anticipated filibuster attempt to fail.

Governor Martin O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill into law, which would make Maryland the sixth state to legalize the institution.

The House has yet to hold a hearing on its version of the measure.

Meanwhile, opponents on Thursday released a poll that shows a majority (54%) of Marylanders do not support gay marriage and a large majority (78%) want a chance to vote on the issue. The survey's pollster, however, was heavily involved in the effort to get California's gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, approved.