Failure of same-sex marriage casts doubt on measure's future

Opponents see lasting victory; supporters plan to try again in 2012

March 12, 2011|By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

When the state Senate passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage last month, supporters and some opponents believed the controversial legislation had cleared its highest hurdle, and had the momentum to reach the governor's desk.

The failure of the measure to find the necessary support in the traditionally more liberal House of Delegates caught both sides by surprise — and sets up the lower chamber as the new battleground.

Opponents of same-sex marriage say the House's decision not to vote on the bill seals its fate through the rest of lawmakers' four-year terms. They predict that the move will have an impact on lawmakers in other states now considering whether to allow same-sex couples to marry.

"This was a big victory," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. "We were told that this is a done deal, same-sex marriage will pass. If you look back a few months ago, I don't think anyone would have predicted this."

Advocates for gay marriage now say they underestimated the impact of the November election on the makeup of the House. Six Democrats —- including five who had supported same-sex marriage — lost or gave up their seats. And advocates didn't anticipate the mass mobilization of black churches, which began preaching against the legislation and urging parishioners to contact their lawmakers.

Together, those factors helped split the 141-member House. Supporters and opponents alike say the legislation was within a vote or two of passage; the chamber's Democratic leaders sent the bill back to committee on Friday rather than forcing members to take what would have a politically difficult vote.

Advocates say they will use the next nine months to convince the dozen or so delegates who are on the fence in the hope of trying again next year. While polls have indicated more public support for civil unions than for gay marriage, advocates say they will continue to fight for what they call marriage equality.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the most senior of the legislature's openly gay members, found hope in defeat. The Baltimore Democrat had a speech prepared for the House debate but could not deliver it because she was in tears.

"This is a year I will always celebrate," she said afterward, choking up. She said the supportive speeches she heard from colleagues Friday convinced her that many accept her identity.

"I'm just so overwhelmed. It is not an issue that is going away."

Brown disagreed. He said that proponents want to create a "myth" that same-sex marriage is "inevitable and the dominoes are falling."

As evidence against inevitability, Brown points to 31 states where voters have rejected gay marriage since 1998.

Still, he says, his group will continue to "be vigilant" in Maryland.

Next year appears to be the last best opportunity for gay marriage in Maryland, for a time. Passage after 2012 would likely draw a repeal effort on the 2014 ballot, when lawmakers are up for re-election. At least some would want to avoid association with the controversial issue.

On the day before the House was to vote, Brown's organization pledged $1 million to help defeat any Republican who supported same-sex marriage, and to assist any Democrat who opposed it. Indeed, House leaders say they expected the chamber's 43 Republicans to vote as a bloc against the bill.

African-American churches proved another forceful voice of opposition.

"Black churches have never asked us for anything," Del. Cheryl Glenn said during Friday's debate. "They are asking us now, 'Don't use the word marriage.'"

The Baltimore Democrat said she strongly supports "anyone loving whoever they want to love." She tried to amend the bill to establish civil unions.

As the gay marriage bill appeared to move toward passage, lawmakers said they began hearing about the issue in church nearly every Sunday.

Del. Talmadge Branch said his pastor at Israel Baptist Church in Baltimore City lobbied him heavily. The Baltimore Democrat said leaders at other churches called him out from the pulpit during services.

The Rev. Franklin Lance, pastor at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Baltimore, said members asked questions about gay marriage at Bible study.

"From my perspective just in talking to my congregants, we have simply been saying that we believe that marriage should be defined as man and woman," Lance said. "This is not to be negative toward or restricted toward or biased toward anyone else. We do believe that is sacred. We believe it's holy. We believe it's the first institution ordained by Christ."

McIntosh said supporters of gay marriage "have a lot of work to do in the African-American community." She said they erred in drawing parallels to the civil rights movement — a comparison that angered some black opponents.

"That is comparing apples to oranges," McIntosh said.

Advocates have attempted several paths to gay marriage.

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