Darryl Lewis, left, and his partner David Bare, of Catonsville,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Hundreds of activists on both sides of the same-sex marriage divide swarmed the Maryland Senate office buildings Tuesday, with advocates sharing personal anecdotes and opponents issuing warnings as lawmakers considered legislation that would allow gay couples to marry.
The majority of senators on the 11-member Judicial Proceedings Committee have co-sponsored the bill, and opponents acknowledged that their efforts would probably not change any minds. It's the first year that the measure has received such support on the panel, a development that has sparked momentum for it.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who opposes gay marriage, assessed the legislation's chance of clearing the full Senate as better than 50-50. Advocates are optimistic that it will pass in the House of Delegates; Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign such a bill.
But opponents vowed to fight it.
"The hearing is a chance to demonstrate the multitude of people on the other side and the diversity of people on the other side," said Mary Ellen Russell of the Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's Catholic bishops. "I think it is fairly certain that minds have been made up … but what the final version of the bill looks like could change."
The debate Tuesday wandered from broad philosophical questions about ideal child-rearing practices to the societal benefits of marriage and the impact of divorce. Senators probed witnesses on technical issues, such as whether the bill, which its authors have named the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, offers adequate shields to those who want no involvement in same-sex marriages.
Thirty minutes before the hearing, the committee room was filled with red-shirted supporters of gay marriage seated side-by-side with opponents. A state trooper told activists standing in the aisles they'd have to watch from a spillover room in another part of the building. That chamber also filled up, and at times the arguments spilled out into the hall.
Roughly 150 signed up to testify, prompting committee Chairman Brian Frosh to limit statements to three minutes.
"We are likely to hear just about everything that is possible to hear on this issue," the Montgomery County Democrat said. The committee could vote on the bill as soon as next week.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, the Senate's only openly gay member, was among the first to address the panel. He talked about his spouse.
"Under Maryland's civil law, he is a legal stranger to me," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "He is just my partner. Even that term cheapens our relationship."
But opponents said the institution of marriage would be cheapened if the definition were expanded. Victor Kirk, pastor of the Sharon Bible Fellowship in Lanham, called the legislation a "slippery slope" and said its supporters are demanding "over-tolerance."
"If this bill passes what next?" he asked. "What if a father wants to marry his daughter? Or a brother and sister want to marry each other?"
He acknowledged both scenarios are "preposterous" in the current culture. But 20 years ago, he said, the same would have been said of gay marriage.
The legislation would repeal a 38-year-old provision in Maryland law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The two-page bill includes a section saying that religious institutions would not be compelled to perform same-sex marriages.
But opponents said those protections are inadequate. They say the bill would do nothing to shield businesses or individuals who want to steer clear of aiding such ceremonies.
Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs gave the example of a small wedding cake business that might not want to provide confections for a gay marriage. Another example was a hypothetical court clerk whose religious convictions might make him or her unable to issue a marriage certificate to a gay couple.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jamie Raskin noted that state law already bars hotels, motels, and restaurants from turning anyone away based on sexual orientation.
"People who are operating substantial businesses have to be open to all members of the public," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Washington and Lee University law professor Robin F. Wilson pressed the issue, testifying that the legislation would offer only "faux protections" to those religious entities that would want to steer clear from same sex marriages.
She noted that in some states adoption agencies connected with religious groups do not have to place children in couples with marriages that didn't fit their beliefs. Two states, she said, allow religious groups to limit spousal benefits to heterosexual employees. Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, opposes the bill, but said he might propose amendments to include more protections.
Several Republicans — including Sen. Allan Kittleman, the former Senate minority leader — testified in support of the bill.