With two votes to spare, the Senate voted 40-14 to add to the Georgia Constitution an amendment that would ban gay marriage.
The vote came after 2 1/2 hours of debate during which Democrats fighting the resolution tried to kill it by adding adultery to the question that will be put to voters should two-thirds of the House also approve it.
Republicans cast the debate as a moral fight and an effort to protect the state from "activist" judges who might allow homosexuals the same marital privilege now afforded heterosexuals.
Twice the Democrats came within one vote of attaching to the resolution a constitutional prohibition on adultery, which state law also bans. The first vote was 26-26, the second was 27-27. According to Senate rules, a tie means a motion fails.
Earlier Monday, Sen. Mike Crotts (R-Conyers), sponsor of the proposed amendment, spoke in an even tone on the Senate floor as he explained why Georgia needs to change its constitution.
Crotts argued the state law that already bars same-sex marriage isn't specific enough and could be overturned by "activist" judges -- such as those in Massachusetts, he said, that ruled it was unconstitutional to prohibit gays the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.
"They forced it to the surface in Massachusetts. They forced it to the surface in California," Crotts said, in reference to San Francisco officials performing wedding ceremonies for hundreds of gay couples in recent days.
Judges "instead of adjudicating, they are legislating," Crotts said. "We don't need judges legislating. ... Let the people be heard over the voices of the judges."
Crotts defended the role the religious community has played in the debate, saying "morality is built on faith-based initiatives."
With debate raging on the Senate floor, the public viewing gallery in the balcony was standing room only, with some 150 people crowded into the area.
More than two-thirds of the crowd said they oppose the proposed constitutional amendment against gay marriage, with about 20 people saying they support the measure and a dozen saying that they had not made a decision.
The crowd listened intently and generally was polite, but opponents of the measure laughed derisively at some of Crotts' comments.
The constitutional amendment defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The amendment must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature before it would go on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
The debate strayed to discussion of another state law based on morality, the statute that makes adultery illegal.
At one point, Crotts and Sen. Nadine Thomas (D-Ellenwood) were shouting over each other. Thomas was trying to get Crotts to agree to sign off on a resolution to expel from the Legislature any senator who commits adultery. Crotts said he would have to look at her proposal before committing.
"When it comes to sin or immorality, there are no classes," Thomas said. "A sin is a sin."
Democrats proposed adding strict restrictions on marriage between a man and a woman to the amendment.
One would allow only one heterosexual marriage. Any subsequent marriage would be considered adultery, which is illegal in Georgia.
Another, proposed by Sen. Horacena Tate (D-Atlanta), would write into the state constitution a prohibition on adultery. She said she was trying "to raise adultery to the same constitutional level."
The Senate fell silent as Thomas spoke of an abusive marriage she ended years ago. Thomas said she might have been forced to stay in that relationship if conservatives had their way.
"You want to put all your energy into legislating morality," Thomas said. "The men and woman who feel they want to live in a world free of sin, I suggest you find another world."
Thomas said she was disturbed when "I see people come to the Capitol in the name of the Lord God but they don't come here in the name of love. I do have an issue ... that they are for God but come down here with a legislative agenda to take rights from everyone."
Though Thomas said she would not vote to include in the constitution a prohibition of adultery, she urged legislators to adopt the proposed amendments to expel from the Legislature any senator who admits to adultery if they also vote to ban gay marriage.
"I am not going to let mean-spirited men and women ... to go and start dismantling this constitution," Thomas said.
Thomas and other Democrats chastised legislators for ignoring what they considered the important issues of this session -- funding for health care and education and taking care of children -- while putting so much energy into debate over banning marriage between gays.
"There are many issues much more important than ... gay marriage," said Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Clarkston). "Let's get down to real-time issues. Let's get back to what's important to the people of Georgia and I don't believe it's gay marriage."
Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Powder Springs) warned his colleagues against being too moral. "You're trying to out-moralize each other over here and some of you are going to break your necks," Thompson said. "Because that white horse is tall and that fall has a kick."
Thompson then criticized the GOP "attack on same-sex marriage that's already illegal" and other Republican initiatives this season -- including another amendment to the constitution providing protections for hunters and fishermen.
"We've taken up some serious issues," Thompson said sarcastically. "We're trying to out-moral each other so we can go home and say 'Yes, I'm a demagogue and a good one.' "