Advocates of same-sex marriage in Maryland say they don't anticipate any big victories in the State House this year, despite the recent adoption of more permissive laws in the District of Columbia, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
Instead, proponents of a broader definition of marriage are thinking long-term.
For the first time, they are launching a fundraising and lobbying effort to target individual state legislators who they say are unfriendly to their cause.
Still, the issue promises to generate lots of debate in Annapolis over the next three months.
State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is working on a much-anticipated opinion on whether same-sex unions performed in other states should be recognized in Maryland. The opinion is expected any week now, and opponents of gay marriage fear Gansler will rule that they should be honored here.
Social conservatives are rallying behind a proposal to expressly prohibit the state from acknowledging same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, a bill that would clarify Maryland's law and erase the need for Gansler's opinion.
That plan, sponsored by Del. Emmett C. Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat and minister, is scheduled for its first hearing today.
Burns has offered the bill in the past with no success, but he says the landscape has changed this year, particularly because the District of Columbia agreed in December to issue marriage certificates to same sex couples.
"You don't get any closer to Maryland than Washington, D.C.," Burns said. "Now we have reached a point where it has to be dealt with, and we are very vulnerable."
Burns warned that a loophole in the state's law allows recognition of gay marriage. "It needs to be closed," he said in an interview.
In the past year, three states and the District of Columbia have changed their rules to allow same-sex marriages, bringing to six the number of places gay couples can go to marry. Proponents offer those states as Exhibit A that their cause is gaining national momentum.
But in roughly the same time period, four other states including New York have either rejected or undone gay marriage statues.
"Over and over again, populations in even the most liberal states support traditional marriage," said Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, a group that opposes broadening the definition of marriage.
The General Assembly has extended about a dozen legal protections to same-sex couples in recent years, including creating a process for them to be officially recognized as domestic partners. Among them are an exemption from inheritance taxes when one partner dies, the right to make medical decisions for one another and the ability to make hospital visitations and share a rooms in nursing homes.
"We've moved ahead on a wide range of issues," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Democrat from Montgomery County. "So we've gotten ourselves right up to the edge, but haven't been able to get over."
One major obstacle for gay-rights advocates is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat representing Calvert and Prince George's counties who voted in the 1970s for a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"My opinion is that, just like in California and Maine, the people of Maryland would decide against gay marriage," he said, explaining why lawmakers have not favored such a proposal.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch declined through his spokeswoman to comment.
The body has stopped short of extending full marriage rights. And most point the finger at the conservative leaning Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
"We have the votes in the House to pass marriage equality," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat. "There are not enough votes to get it out of [the Senate committee]. Until that happens, until there is some change of heart or change in political landscape or change of composition in that committee, that bill is going to have a hard time."
A key Democrat on the 11-member panel, Sen. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's County, has opposed same-sex marriage measures in the past. He said he'd like the issue to be settled directly by the voters, suggesting a ballot measure on the issue. And Miller controls the membership of the panel, so even if some anti-gay marriage lawmakers are defeated, they can be replaced by others with similar views.
But Equality Maryland has a different approach for this year. They changed tactics from a full-bore legislative push for same sex marriage to targeting lawmakers they see as unfriendly to their cause. Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets wouldn't say who is on the list, but she touted a fundraiser where she said $30,000 was collected at in a single evening. She expects to raise $200,000 to be dumped into a few key districts this election cycle.