The decision by the House of Delegates to send a bill legalizing gay marriage back to the House Judiciary Committee — a move designed to prevent the measure's outright defeat — is a crushing disappointment to the thousands of Marylanders who lobbied, pleaded and prayed for legislators to remove a final vestige of state-sanctioned discrimination from our laws. The move does not mean that the issue is dead for the year, but it is a major setback.
In retrospect, proponents may have made a strategic error in investing so much energy in the fight over the bill in the state Senate. It had always been assumed that the votes were there in the House and that the Senate would be the roadblock to passage, in that it skews somewhat more conservative on many issues and presents the possibility that a minority could block the legislation through the filibuster. Thanks to meticulous groundwork, fortuitous committee assignments and the tacit blessing of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (himself a gay-marriage opponent), the issue sailed through the upper chamber with little drama.
But things were different in the House. Co-sponsors of the bill began dropping their support. A committee vote was delayed for days while two delegates wavered and a third held out her support to draw attention to other issues. The outside pressure from churches and others that oppose the legislation, which had been muted during the Senate debate, came on in full force as the issue moved toward a vote in the House.
One factor proponents didn't consider became crucial. Unlike in the Senate, where all but one of the members has held elective office before, in some cases for decades, the House has many newcomers who wrestled for the first time with how to weigh personal convictions against a concerted campaign by a portion of their constituents. Del. Tiffany Alston of Prince George's County, for example, campaigned last year on her support of same-sex marriage but opposed the legislation after receiving an outpouring of phone calls and e-mails from opponents in her district. It is wholly justifiable for a legislator to listen to his or her conscience in the face of such pressure, but it is difficult to ask of someone who has never faced such a situation before.
The issue is not dead; if vote tallies change, the bill could theoretically be brought back to the floor, though House Speaker Michael E. Busch indicated he doesn't expect that to happen. But advocates should also bear in mind that although this year appeared from the beginning like a magical opportunity, it is not the only one. Nothing will change between now and 2012 other than the steady growth in the public's acceptance of true equal rights for all. And perhaps proponents could enlist some high-profile help. In the wake of the House's action, Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement saying he had hoped to sign a same-sex marriage bill and that he remains "committed to working with all Marylanders to ensure that rights are protected for … everyone." If he means that, he should get off the sidelines and publicly advocate for the issue.
Justice has been delayed, but it has not been defeated.