House girds for same-sex marriage debate

Delegates face pressure on divisive issue

March 09, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

On the day before the House of Delegates was expected to begin debate on same-sex marriage, lawmakers received a letter from six gay colleagues.

"Vote yes because you know it is the right thing to do," the delegates wrote Tuesday. "Vote yes because you want to stand on the right side of history. Vote yes because every family in Maryland needs the protections that marriage provides."

Later Tuesday, opponents of gay marriage from Pennsylvania played bagpipes outside the lawmakers' offices, displayed a banner that read: "God's Marriage = 1 man & 1 woman," and encouraged like-minded motorists to honk.

As they prepare to open debate Wednesday on legislation that would allow gay couples to marry, members of the divided House are facing pressure from all sides.

The Senate has already approved the plan. House passage would send the bill to the governor's desk, where Democrat Martin O'Malley has promised to sign it.

Delegates have heard from hundreds of constituents, received a flood of e-mails from supporters and opponents and, in some cases, struggled internally with how to vote. Several of them — including co-sponsors — have changed their positions. Dozens remain publicly uncommitted.

"The vote is close, probably an even split," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, the most senior of the six openly gay delegates. "A healthy handful of people are still making up their minds."

The Baltimore Democrat said that most of those delegates have told her they support same-sex marriage personally, but believe their constituents largely oppose it.

Because neither supporters nor opponents are confident in how the 141-member House will vote after what could be several days of debate, both sides have been laboring to convince the holdouts.

The Civil Marriage Protection Act would repeal the state's legal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, enabling officials to beging issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The legislation attracted 59 co-sponsors; it needs 71 votes to pass.

The Senate voted 25-21 to approve the bill last month after several hours of discussion spanning two days. Senators on both sides of the issue congratulated themselves on the even tone of the debate.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who shepherded the bill on the floor of the upper chamber, has been meeting regularly with the woman chosen as his House counterpart: Del. Kathleen M. Dumais.

On Wednesday, and possibly beyond, delegates may offer amendments to the Senate plan. Already, Del. John P. Donoghue, a Western Maryland Democrat, told colleagues he would be trying to seek more protection for religious groups that do not want to be forced to recognize gay marriage or participate in same-sex ceremonies.

Supporters of gay marriage fear the tone of the debate on the floor could devolve. In the House Judiciary Committee last week, opponents attempted to sink the bill by amending it to allow polygamy and incest.

Del. Don Dwyer Jr. upset some by sending an email to his colleagues that included pornography. The Anne Arundel County Republican, who calls himself the "face of the opposition," claimed educators in Massachusetts were giving the material to children in that state.

The 43-member minority caucus voted weeks ago to oppose the legislation as a group.

The pressure on the delegates became evident last week, when the Judiciary Committee faced unexpected obstacles in moving the bill to the floor. Three committee members who had co-sponsored the bill wavered, delaying the vote three days.

On Friday, when the vote was taken, Del. Tiffany Alston, a co-sponsor, opposed it "for my constituents."

Alston, a Prince George's County Democrat, and Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, had derailed the committee's first voting session on the issue by not showing up. Carter, said she wanted to draw attention to other matters, including city education funding.

About the same time, another committee member and bill co-sponsor, Del. Sam Arora, shocked colleagues by saying he was not planning to vote in favor of the measure on the House floor.

The Montgomery County Democrat, who won an endorsement from gay-rights group Equality Maryland during his fall campaign, attracted particular scorn. Hundreds posted complaints on his Facebook page. Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, who is gay, wrote on his blog that Arora is "a cowardly liar" and "stunningly pathetic."

Erstwhile supporters, meanwhile, launched a bid to get their campaign donations back.

The freshman delegate did not explain his sudden hesitation, saying in one statement that he had needed to "pray" about it. On Friday, he released another statement saying he would support the measure both in committee and on the floor, but he added the caveat that he thought voters should ultimately weigh in.

Indeed, opponents have pledged that if the legislation is signed into law, they will immediately begin collecting the roughly 55,000 signatures needed to get a referendum to repeal it on the 2012 ballot.

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