Maryland appears poised this year to expand the rights of same-sex couples, with the state legislature considering proposals on full marriage benefits as well as a compromise plan that would establish civil unions.
If either measure passes, Maryland would join a small group of states — six plus the District of Columbia — that allow gay couples either to marry or enter civil contracts. But state voters probably would have the final say next year, lawmakers believe, because any new law can be petitioned to referendum.
Several opinion polls this year, including one this week, show that Marylanders' support for gay marriage is growing.
"This is about loving couples," Sean Eldridge, political director for the New York-based advocacy group Freedom to Marry, told lawmakers and supporters Tuesday at an event in Annapolis to promote gay marriage legislation.
Called the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, the proposal would not require religious entities to perform same-sex weddings but would give them the legal ability to do so by repealing Maryland's legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. The couples also would be issued marriage licenses by the state.
The legislation was introduced in the state Senate last week and is expected to be rolled out in the House of Delegates as soon as Wednesday.
Gay marriage has never before been considered by the full, 188-member General Assembly; in years past, legislation has stalled in committees.
But supporters and opponents alike believe this year will be different, pointing to the Democratic pickup of two seats in the Senate last fall and an increase in younger, more liberal members in the House over the years. Supporters say the recent bipartisan repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy signals a national shift in views.
"There's a magical moment where something controversial has picked up enough speed to pass," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., an openly gay Montgomery County Democrat and a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage. "I believe we are there."
Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions, said he is looking forward to a robust floor debate.
"I believe that every member should have to be on record as for or against this," Dwyer said. "And then the voters will get the issue, and it will be defeated."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions, saying that he believes the traditional definition of marriage "is blessed by God" and meant to further procreation.
But if supporters of the legislation can win a majority of the 47-member Senate, he said, he will help them avoid a bill-killing debate. It takes 29 votes to stop a filibuster, and Miller has committed to being one of them.
If that means the General Assembly passes legislation allowing gay marriage, he said, "so be it."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, pledged Tuesday that if the Senate passes a bill, "we will have a vote on it."
Busch, who prefers civil unions to gay marriage, said this year might be the only shot for advocates until after the 2014 election.
"I think the big push will be this year," he said. If it fails, he said, it "won't come back" this term.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign either a gay marriage or civil unions bill if it comes to his desk, but he isn't part of the lobbying effort.
Often, the highest hurdles for controversial bills are the committees that first debate them and decide what to pass along to the full legislature.
A review by The Baltimore Sun indicates that gay marriage has the support of exactly enough senators and a bare majority of delegates on the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary panels to proceed to floor votes.
Six of the 11 members of the Senate committee are co-sponsoring the signature same-sex marriage bill, a sign that it is likely to clear that committee. And in the House panel, at least 12 members — the minimum needed — either campaigned on the right of same-sex couples to marry or have told The Sun that they would approve the legislation.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, does not support gay marriage. But he indicated that he would allow his committee to vote on the measure if the Senate approves the legislation first.
Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., a Baltimore Democrat seen as a swing vote on the closely divided committee, had been reluctant to take a position on gay marriage.
He said he "became informed" during his re-election campaign and now is a supporter. "I want you to quote me on this because I said this on the campaign trail," Conaway said. "I gave my word to the people who voted me in. … I told them I'm going to vote for it."