O'Malley stands up for equality

Our view: The governor's support for same-sex marriage increases the bill's prospects, but advocates cannot become complacent

July 22, 2011

Advocates for marriage equality in Maryland have taken several important steps toward reversing their narrow defeat in this year's General Assembly session, but none were nearly so important as the boost they got today from Gov. Martin O'Malley, who said he will sponsor the legislation in next year's session and assign his chief legislative aide with making sure it succeeds. Given that the legislation passed the state Senate was likely just a vote or two shy of passage in the House of Delegates, the odds are extremely good that the governor's highly public support — and the not inconsiderable talents of his top lobbyist, Joseph C. Bryce — will be enough to put the bill over the top.

The success of gay marriage legislation in New York this summer looms large over all the strategizing among advocates in Annapolis. As in New York, a coalition of Maryland gay activists, labor unions, progressive organizations and some religious groups has agreed to coordinate efforts. As in New York, the governor has agreed to lead the charge. And as in New York, advocates are intent on crafting a religious exemption that will persuade lawmakers who are torn over the issue.

Governor O'Malley, in a news conference to announce his plans, specifically cited the provision of the New York law that allows religious groups to opt out of participating in or recognizing same-sex marriages as a model for Maryland to follow. In truth, the bill that failed in the Maryland House this year had an exemption that was nearly identical to the provision in the New York law, but making even minor efforts to strengthen the religious protections could be enough to sway a handful of votes.

That said, advocates have their work cut out for them. Within minutes of Mr. O'Malley's announcement, Del. Emmet C. Burns, a Randallstown Democrat and a minister, announced his own news conference for Tuesday at which he pledged to "detail plans to counter and hopefully defeat" Governor O'Malley's effort "to legalize homosexuality in Maryland." As strident as Delegate Burns has been in his rhetoric, he points to a key difference between Maryland and New York: the political influence of African-American churches, which mobilized this spring to help defeat Maryland's marriage bill.

Governor O'Malley's support can't reverse that dynamic by itself, but he could have a powerful story to tell as he seeks to persuade legislators. Until this year, Mr. O'Malley's public position had been in opposition to same-sex marriage but in favor of civil unions. Explaining how his views evolved could be particularly persuasive, more so, perhaps, even than the lobbying of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has long been in favor of gay marriage. After all, Mr. O'Malley will be trying to convince legislators to make the same leap he has.

Since the New York vote, Mr. O'Malley has faced unfavorable comparisons to Mr. Cuomo. Both are seen as having potential to be national political figures, and there is no question that the New York governor's star shone brighter after his successful push for gay marriage. Given the shift in public opinion — recent national polls have shown a majority in favor of same-sex marriage — there seems to be little down-side and much potential up-side for an ambitious Democratic governor to take on the issue.

But however the politics of gay marriage may evolve, and whatever Mr. O'Malley's ambition may be, he can take comfort in the fact that he is doing the right thing. He is standing behind the proposition that everyone should be treated the same under the law, and there is little he can do in this or any year that's more important.

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