Gay marriage opponents slow to fight in Annapolis

Preparing for intensified battle in House of Delegates

February 26, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Senate passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was accompanied by an intense lobbying effort: Supporters rallied in Annapolis. Adoring couples spoke at news conferences. Lawmakers received carnations on Valentine's Day.

But the battle over the legislation has been one-sided, with opponents much less visible in the state capital. Though debates are simmering in churches and barbershops around Maryland, those who want to preserve traditional marriage are just beginning to show a coordinated resistance.

"The legislative opposition is very minimal," said Del. Don Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican who has fought gay marriage for nearly a decade.

Opponents of the measure have lacked the costly lobbying and media campaigns developed for legislative fights in New York and Rhode Island. They also acknowledge being caught off-guard by the speed with which the gay marriage bill, officially called the Civil Marriage Protection Act, moved from a lost cause in Annapolis to the most talked-about issue of the General Assembly session.

The bill never even received a vote before this year.

"We have a tendency to play defense," said John Smith of the First Baptist Church in Essex. He's been gearing up to oppose the issue over the past two weeks, and described his congregation as engaged and interested. "We haven't been looking for a fight. It just showed up on our doorstep."

Smith also heads the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, which has more than 500 member churches in this state. He said the organization will use "all avenues" to preserve traditional marriage.

The fight could become more public — and more emotionally charged — as it shifts to the House of Delegates. Bill sponsors in that chamber acknowledge that they are a handful of votes shy of securing the 71 needed for approval. But if the House accepts the bill, Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign it, and opponents say they'll petition it to referendum.

On Friday, opponents of the measure held a pair of news conferences in Annapolis, their first since the bill was introduced last month. "This is not over," said the Rev. Derek McCoy, leader of a political action committee called Maryland Citizen's Clergy. "We will be engaged in the House [of Delegates]."

McCoy noted that religious groups met one-on-one with lawmakers during the Senate fight which concluded last week, and organized e-mails and phone calls. "We really trusted the process," McCoy said.

He was "disappointed" some senators didn't listen to their constituents and promised more public engagement in the next phase.

No lobbyist

One handicap to the opposition effort is that it lacks a paid lobbyist focused exclusively on the issue.

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said she put feelers out to several Annapolis lobbying firms but was turned down. Firms told her that their other clients might not want to be associated with the controversial nature of the bill.

It hurt her efforts. "Every lobbyist presents a new relationship and a new connection," she said.

The Maryland Catholic Conference pushes an assortment of bills, and has previously hired the lobbying firm Schwartz, Metz & Wise for specific fights.

Pam Kasemeyer, a principal with the firm, is married to Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, who voted for the same-sex marriage bill. Lobbyists with the firm declined to comment.

Sean Malone, with another leading Annapolis lobbying group, said his firm declined to represent a group opposing same-sex marriage but would not name the organization.

"We see this as a civil rights issue," Malone said. "We could not see a compelling argument to make for it. It was not a fight we wanted."

On the other side, the gay-advocacy group Equality Maryland hired the Annapolis firm Alexander & Cleaver to lobby lawmakers. Their team has had a steady presence at hearings, news conferences and voting sessions, coordinating a multifaceted effort to apply pressure and produce votes.

Russell also said the church lost influence in the debate because it is prohibited from donating to political campaigns because of its tax-exempt status. The "apparent imbalance" in efforts, she said, can be explained by the proponents putting "an enormous amount of money" into key campaigns last year.

Equality Maryland spent about $54,000 on state political campaigns in 2010, according to campaign finance reports.

Though passage in the House is far from assured, opponents seem to be looking at the next horizon: collecting the 55,376 signatures needed to petition the law to referendum. At the opponents' news conference Friday, activists chanted "Let the people vote."

Dwyer is gearing up for a shock-and-awe House debate — he says he has been sharing with colleagues a pamphlet that includes explicit descriptions of sex acts. Such pamphlets, he says, have been passed out to children in Massachusetts where same-sex marriage is legal.

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