On eve of gay marriage vote, 'friendly' amendment offered

Undecided delegate says it would make bill stronger

March 10, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

As the House of Delegates prepared to vote Friday on legalizing same-sex marriage, a Baltimore County Democrat still weighing whether to support the bill offered an amendment that he said would further protect religious groups.

Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. said his amendment improves the bill. The House Judiciary Committee debated Thursday afternoon whether to embrace Olszewski's amendment as "friendly," even as Republican committee members cried foul.

The amendment strikes language in the bill that spells out what religious programs — including counseling and summer camp — are shielded from having to provide services to same-sex couples. By taking out those specifications, Olszewski believes, the overall religious protections would be stronger.

The committee delayed making a decision until Friday morning — 10 minutes before the marriage bill is scheduled to be presented on the House floor for a final vote. The 141-member House appears nearly evenly split on approval of the overall bill, meaning every delegate's vote carries extra significance.

Asked whether he would support the marriage bill if his amendment is accepted, Olszewski said, "I can't say that at this point."

He added, "I'm just trying to find a balance between equal rights for all citizens and protections for religion."

The Senate, which last month approved same-sex marriage by a 25-21 vote, had signaled to the lower chamber that it did not want any amendments attached to the bill.

Reached Thursday, Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the Senate floor debate, said he believes the upper chamber "could play ball" if Olszewski's amendment "forwards the two values of the bill: equal rights for all Maryland citizens and absolute religious freedom."

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and the House floor leader for the bill, said in committee that she considers Olszewski's amendment "friendly" — one that enhances or clarifies the original legislation but does not alter its intent.

But Eastern Shore Republican Del. Michael D. Smigiel said committee members should be clear about what's happening with Olszewski: "A deal has been made that I'll give you my vote for this amendment."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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