Same-sex marriage advocates bide time

State mood needs time to shift before vote, backers say

March 29, 2010|By Shauna Miller | Capital News Service

When Attorney General Douglas Gansler issued his February opinion recognizing same-sex marriages from out of state, it made Maryland the next state to watch on gay marriage.

But instead of using the opinion to launch a renewed effort to legalize gay marriage in Maryland, advocates are taking a different, counterintuitive tack: Stalling.

That's because a referendum is likely to follow passage of any new marriage law, and voters have not favored gay marriage in states where a popular vote was held. Advocates here want to put off that possibility until public opinion shifts in their favor.

In more than a decade of bills on same-sex marriage, none has passed the General Assembly. And as Maryland follows the trajectory of states that have legalized gay marriage, advocates may not want a vote any time soon.

For the third year, Del. Benjamin S. Barnes and Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., both Montgomery County Democrats, have filed bills to legalize same-sex marriage.

But advocates don't expect either bill to pass during this legislative session, and that may work to their advantage.

"The national partners we work with are experts on how this has worked in other states, and they agree we are well-poised," said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland. "We will be in a stronger place a year from now, even six months from now."

Part of the strategy is to not rock the boat. Advocates also want to avoid a high-profile legal challenge that could trump Gansler's opinion - even from gay couples seeking to enforce the directive Gov. Martin O'Malley made to state agencies to honor out-of-state marriages.

Instead, advocates want to build grass-roots support from churches and African-American groups while fallout from the opinion settles.

Black voters turned out in large numbers for California's Proposition 8 in 2008, with 70 percent voting against gay marriage. But religion was a much larger factor there, something advocates in Washington addressed by assembling an advocacy board of more than 200 clergy members. Washington began allowing same-sex marriages earlier this month.

About a quarter of Maryland residents are African-American. And though several black churches have supported same-sex marriage, Bishop Harry Jackson of Beltsville's Hope Christian Church was a powerful voice against it in the District of Columbia, where it was recently legalized.

But as supporters bide their time, opponents have been spurred to action.

Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, has promised to bring impeachment charges against Gansler on the House floor next week, despite a warning from Speaker Michael E. Busch that he would be ruled out of order.

And House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, introduced an emergency bill to halt enforcement of the Gansler opinion until the legislature or a court rules on the issue. "The monopoly here in control of the legislature doesn't want to address the political controversy," O'Donnell said.

Other lawmakers back a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. But how Marylanders would vote on the issue isn't so clear.

A poll of 960 voters released in January by Greenberg Research found Marylanders supported same-sex marriage 47 percent to 44 percent.

The poll, commissioned by Equality Maryland, found that if gay marriage were legalized, more than half of voters would vote to preserve the law. It says 39 percent would vote to overturn it.

Nationally, a majority of Americans do not support same-sex marriage. A 2009 Pew Research Center poll found that 53 percent of Americans were against legalizing it, while 39 percent supported it.

Age presents one of the biggest divides, with 58 percent of Americans under 30 supporting same-sex marriage, compared with 22 percent of those over 65.

Such fluctuations could make legislators reluctant in an election year, said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

"The elderly vote in large numbers," he said. "And that's where you're likely to find the most opponents of gay rights."

Those who hoped Gansler's opinion would bring immediate changes may be frustrated.

But O'Donnell said waiting out the election year would ultimately allow both sides more time to strategize around Gansler's opinion, something his bill seeks to force by suspending recognition of out-of-state gay marriages.

"We need the benefit of time to determine what the people want," O'Donnell said.

For Madaleno, Barnes and their supporters, the time will allow them to build a dialogue in the legislature.

"With each passing legislature, you're going to see more and more support for this," Barnes said. "You have a lot of reasonable people here who want to do the right thing."

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