A week of partisan moves over gay marriage reached a zenith yesterday when the House of Delegates refused to revive a bill to put the question of same-sex unions on the ballot in November.
Lawmakers handily turned back a Republican led-effort to resuscitate a bill that died Thursday night in a committee. The vote was procedural on its face, but at the heart of discussion lay one of the most contentious questions facing this year's General Assembly: whether to place on the ballot a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
Yesterday's vote was a blow to Republican lawmakers, who vowed to keep the gay marriage debate alive. A differently worded constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage has been filed in the Senate, and House Republicans said they plan to file companion measures.
"This is a case of more obfuscation by the Democrats," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, House minority whip, who accused Democrats of using parliamentary maneuvers to prohibit debate. "The only clear thing you can take out of this, is that those who voted red voted against protecting the institution of marriage."
Democrats, many of whom strategized behind the scenes to keep the debate over gay marriage from coming to the House floor, denied the accusation. They said the bill was fairly considered and that Republicans were simply upset that their effort failed.
"The fact of the matter is there is a process," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "What would have been a fairer public process? The only complaint the opposing party had this week is that their opinion did not prevail."
Democrats do not think there are enough votes for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot even if another bill revives the issue. To alter the Maryland Constitution, the House and Senate must approve an amendment by a three-fifths' majority. The measure then goes before voters in the next general election. Unlike in other states, Maryland citizens cannot start amendment drives on their own.
Conservative lawmakers began pressing for a constitutional amendment two weeks ago, when Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled that Maryland's 33-year-old law defining marriage as being between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. Murdock stayed her decision pending an appeal that was immediately filed by the state attorney general's office.
Nationwide, states have struggled with the issue of gay rights, creating what constitutional law professors have called a patchwork of laws defining civil rights protections in some states while codifying restrictions on marriage in others. In a handful of states, resolutions on whether gays and lesbians should be permitted to marry have been deliberated for years in courts and legislatures.
Nineteen states have amended their constitutions to outlaw gay marriage, and at least four others are expected to place the question on the ballot this fall. The discussion yesterday in Annapolis was less raucous than Thursday night's committee meeting, but several lawmakers made verbal jabs.
"Do you trust the judicial committee or do you trust the people of Maryland?" said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, to which many legislators responded with groans.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said, "This constitutional amendment has been before us many times. It was voted down two years ago, and there was no stifling of the process then. ... This year, it was voted down in committee again, and there was no stifling of the process."
This year's debate took on an overt political tone, with both parties aware of the possible implications on Election Day.
Some political experts say an amendment on same-sex marriage can benefit Republicans because the issue draws more conservative voters to the polls. Others think the issue also turns out liberal voters who might see it as an issue of civil liberties.
House conservatives used unusual procedures in trying to propel the debate to the floor. Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, drafted a petition that, with 47 signatures, would have allowed him to remove the bill from a committee and bring it directly to the House floor.
Dwyer revealed Thursday that he had the signatures needed - including four from Democrats - but blamed Busch for cutting short the morning House session to prevent Dwyer from raising the issue.
Busch denied that he was stifling discussion, saying the bill first deserved a committee vote.
Thursday night, the House Judiciary Committee rejected the bill. Yesterday, proponents used a rarely seen House procedure that allows a failed bill to come to full debate with a majority vote. Supporters needed 71 of the House's 141 votes to permit a discussion. They fell short as the House voted 78-61 to uphold the committee's rejection, with 19 Democrats voting to discuss the bill.