Same-Sex marriage fight to return to legislature

Heather Mizeur by Julie WiattDelegate Heather Mizeur. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

The contentious legislative battle over same-sex marriage ended only a few months ago, but opponents and advocates have already started preparing to fight for their cause in the 2012 legislative session.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has stepped out from the behind-the-scenes role he played during the 2011 legislative session and has promised to sponsor a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. O’Malley has already spent time with advocacy groups and spoke at a fundraiser for Equality Maryland.

“The governor and the advocacy groups have formed a much stronger partnership this year,” said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O’Malley. “We’re organizing a much stronger effort this year and we’re getting ahead of it earlier.”

The advocates are not alone in their anticipation of the 2012 session. Delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., D-Baltimore County, said opponents have increased in numbers.

“Last time we had a loose confederation of opponents. Now we have a tightly-knit organization with strategies, with plans, and with money to fight same sex marriage,” Burns said. “We have more people … who are against it than last year.”

Burns, who is a reverend at Rising Sun First Baptist Church, held a press conference in early September with several Baltimore area church leaders to announce the creation of a Political Action Committee (PAC) that will fight same-sex marriage legislation during the 2012 session. Burns has a meeting planned with potential PAC members for early October, and hopes to have the PAC officially up and running soon thereafter.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said that advocates for same-sex marriage are better prepared this year as well.

[Last year] “we found ourselves in the middle of a marriage fight without a lot of preparation,” said Mizeur, who is openly gay.

This year, Mizeur has teamed up with Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of political, religious and community groups that support same-sex marriage. Members of Marylanders for Marriage Equality include the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Equality Maryland and community members who support same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage has been a divisive issue in Maryland and around the country for the past several years. During the 2010 legislative session, Burns sponsored a bill that would invalidate same-sex marriages that were entered into legally in other states or countries and was one of 29 delegates who sponsored a bill that would essentially bring the question of same-sex marriage to Maryland voters. Both bills failed.

The Civil Marriage Protection Act was introduced in the 2011 legislative session. The bill would redefine marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two individuals.” Both Republicans and Democrats struggled to balance party allegiances, constituents’ opinions and personal conscience.

House co-sponsors Tiffany Alston, D-Prince George’s, and Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, at one point failed to show up for a committee vote, temporarily stalling progress on the bill. Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, stepped down as the upper chamber’s minority leader because he supported marriage equality, in opposition to most fellow Republicans.

The bill passed the Senate, and many thought that passage through the House, which is traditionally more liberal than the Senate, was all but assured. However, pressure from constituents and religious groups caused several delegates to have doubts, and the bill ultimately failed.

The same-sex marriage debate has played out nationally as well. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia have all legalized same-sex marriage. However, same-sex marriage referendums, which put the question before voters, have failed in every state where they have been introduced.

A May 2011 Gallup Research poll showed that 53 percent of Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage and 45 percent opposed it. This was the first time a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage since Gallup started polling on the issue in 1996. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Maryland residents reflect the divided national views about same-sex marriage. A January 2011 poll from Gonzales Research showed that 51 percent of Marylanders supported same-sex marriage, 44.1 percent opposed it and 4.9 percent did not answer.

Support jumps dramatically when “civil union” replaces “marriage.”

Over 61 percent of Marylanders supported civil unions for same-sex couples, giving them all the same legal rights as married couples. Over 34 percent were opposed and 4 percent had no answer. The margin of error for the poll was no more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

For some same-sex marriage advocates, however, anything less than a legal marriage is unacceptable.

“Civil unions are off the table … There’s no substitute when it comes to marriage,” Mizeur said. “We can’t have ambiguity in the law that civil unions create when families try to call upon these in times of crisis.”

Both sides have started organizing and getting their message out in anticipation of next year’s legislative battle.

“We have had several months to make sure that we can educate people on what the bill does and what it doesn’t do. We want to make sure that we have the support we need for the bill this time around,” Guillory said. “This is an administration bill, [O’Malley] will continue to lobby individuals and educate legislators and the public on what the bill actually does.”

The governor’s bill will include protections for religious freedoms. If the bill passes, religious organizations would be under no obligation to perform same-sex marriages, Guillory said.

But opponents say their ready.

“Now that the constituents, especially black constituents, know what the issues are, and know who the votes are, in terms of black delegates and senators, the religious community is galvanizing the religious forces to oppose the bill and I don’t think it’s going to pass,” Burns said.

— Jessica Talson, Capital News Service

Featured photo: Maryland Delegate Heather Mizeur (D – 20)