By Abdul-Hakim Shabazz
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - A vote by Indiana residents on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was delayed by at least two years on Thursday after the state's Senate declined to restore language that would have put the amendment on track for the 2014 ballot.
Postponing a public vote on the measure was seen as a victory for gay rights activists.
"Today's action is a welcome step back from the brink, ensuring that Indiana's families will not be subjected to a harsh campaign that would add cruel and unconstitutional language to Indiana's state constitution this November," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national group that favors gay marriage rights.
The Indiana House had voted in January to advance the gay marriage ban amendment, but softened it by removing language that would have banned gay civil unions. The sentence they cut said: "A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized."
The Senate is expected to take a final vote on the proposed amendment as early as Monday.
Indiana bans gay marriage by statute and supporters have said a constitutional amendment would provide additional protection from court challenges.
Sharon Pearson of Noblesville, Indiana, said she went to the statehouse with her daughter to show support for the amendment in its original form.
"I feel that Indiana citizens should have had the right to vote on this issue that affects our state," Pearson said. "Where is our moral compass? I feel having the second sentence out undermines the intent of the amendment."
Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated legislature had approved the proposed amendment with the civil unions ban in 2011 and had to approve it again in the same form in this session to put it to a popular vote in 2014. The proposed amendment has been debated by Indiana lawmakers since 2004.
A decade ago, no states allowed same-sex couples to marry. Since then, same-sex marriage has been made legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia.
Other states ban gay marriage by state statute, constitutional amendment, or both.
The action in Indiana follows two high profile rulings on gay marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The court paved the way for gay marriage to resume in California and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Federal judges have cited the Supreme Court's DOMA ruling in finding same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional in Utah and Oklahoma. Both of those decisions are under appeal.
(Reporting by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz in Indianapolis and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by David Bailey)