When Kate Oliver went to her state senator to speak about same-sex marriage, she told him about growing up with a gay father and about the discrimination that he and his partner of 27 years face.
"He worked really hard to make sure I was safe. I will never forget that, and I will always work to make sure he has the same protections as my husband and I," said Oliver, a social worker and mother of two.
Oliver plans to return to Annapolis tomorrow for a rally in support of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would legalize same-sex marriages in Maryland. She has made the trip from her home in Columbia to the State House 10 times in the past three years to lobby for same-sex marriage, but this year, she said, the tenor is different.
People on both sides of this issue say the legislative debate has taken on added importance in the wake of the Maryland Court of Appeals' decision last September to uphold the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
Activists, lobbyists and other advocates are preparing for an emotional fight - meeting with representatives, writing letters, appearing on talk shows, speaking to students, holding press conferences, issuing media releases, sharing their histories and honing arguments.
"The court case and the new bill does create a new and different reality, one that we're concerned about and one we believe we must respond to as quickly and forcefully as possible," said Rabbi Abba Cohen of Baltimore, a same-sex marriage opponent who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America.
"On the one hand, even the leaders have told us that the chances for such a bill passing are slim at best. ... On the other hand, that there are such supreme moral and practical issues at stake makes it an issue that we must respond to," the rabbi said.
Lisa Polyak, who along with her longtime partner was a plaintiff in the lawsuit contesting Maryland's prohibition of gay marriage, has been leading letter-writing campaigns, promoting tomorrow's lobbying day and helping organize students at the East Baltimore campus of the Johns Hopkins University.
"I'll be lobbying for this bill with my last breath," said Polyak, 46, an environmental engineer with two children. "Before, we had a passive role to represent our families but to let the lawyers take the action. Now the action is incumbent upon us as citizens. ... Now we have to count on legislators to do the job that the court failed to do."
On Thursday, the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee will hold a hearing on the bill, which has 49 co-sponsors, as well as opposing legislation that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The House Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue is scheduled for Feb. 28.
The bill that would legalize same-sex marriage appears to have a better chance of passage in the House of Delegates than in the more conservative Senate, though it remains unclear if it will even make it out of committee.
"It may well pass the House," said Republican Sen. Andy Harris, a same-sex marriage opponent who represents Baltimore and Harford counties and is running for Congress. "But in the Senate, there will be enough opposition to stop the bill. ... I think we have the number of votes, if not to defeat it on a straight up-and-down vote, certainly to defeat it in a filibuster."
But Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who backs legalizing same-sex marriage, was cautiously optimistic. "I think our chances are good, but not great," he said. "I think it will take a sustained mobilization to change some people's hearts and minds."
Nationally, eyes are on Maryland to see how the marriage debate unfolds, some advocates say.
"Whatever happens here will have key implications for the nation, the state and for the issue in general," Cohen said.
New York, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont are considering similar legislation. Court cases are pending in Iowa, Connecticut and California.
Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex marriage. Nine other states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships.
In the event the same-sex marriage bill fails, its supporters are hoping to secure some marriage rights for gay and lesbian constituents in a piecemeal fashion. Proposed legislation would give same-sex couples rights to property ownership, inheritance and medical decisions. Gay marriage advocates have also introduced a bill that would define marriage as a religious institution and create a separate institution, domestic partnerships, that is open to everyone.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said that he supports civil unions.
Same-sex marriage supporters and opponents say that if they don't get what they want, they'll return to the issue in the next session, or the session after that.
"I think that even if it doesn't pass, it's a step along the way. Sometimes it takes a while for people to be able to see things in context," Oliver said.
Cohen was equally adamant.
"The issue, we know, is not going away. If it's not front and center this year, it might be front and center next year," said Cohen. "We have to simply start momentum and continue momentum."