Opponents of a Maryland same-sex marriage bill are preparing for its passage in the General Assembly by directing their efforts to a referendum that would delay implementation of the measure until December 2012 at the earliest.
The bill, called the Civil Marriage Protection Act, passed the state Senate on Thursday and is before the House of Delegates, where supporters say they are only a handful of votes short of the 71 needed to approve the measure. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has indicated that he would sign the bill.
But opponents are also looking beyond the vote to a Maryland law that allows residents to circulate a petition to force a referendum on a law approved by the General Assembly or governor but that has yet to take effect. A successful petition blocks the law's implementation until 30 days after a referendum vote in the next statewide election.
"I can assure you that, should this bill come out of the House, it will go to referendum," Delegate Don H. Dwyer Jr., Anne Arundel Republican and a prominent opponent of gay marriage, said Monday. Mr. Dwyer said a referendum effort will begin as soon as the House passes the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican, suggested that the option of taking the issue to a public vote was one reason why the bill passed the Senate last week with scant opposition.
"You will see it again, and you will see it at the ballot box," Mrs. Jacobs said. "When we knew that we did not have the votes, that's what we started investing our time in."
Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, Baltimore Democrat and bill co-sponsor, estimated the bill has 68 or 69 "firm supporters," just two or three short of the 71 needed to pass. He said he expects the House to vote on the bill Friday.
Delegate Kathryn L. Afzali, Frederick Republican and opponent of the bill, acknowledged Friday that Republicans "don't really have enough votes to overturn this."
Regardless of the outcome in the House, many legislators said they expect the issue to be decided by referendum. To force a referendum, organizers would have to collect signatures from 55,737 of the state's registered voters, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat. The number is equal to 3 percent of the nearly 1.9 million voters who cast ballots in the November gubernatorial election.
At least one-third of the required signatures would have to be submitted by May 31 to the state Board of Elections. The remaining signatures would have to be submitted by June 30.
No more than half of the signatures could come from the city of Baltimore or a single county, and the signees would not be required to have voted last fall. Mr. Gansler would have to approve the petition beforehand, and the signatures ultimately would be filed with Maryland Secretary of State John P. McDonough and reviewed by the state Board of Elections.
Gay marriage has been rejected by referendum in all 31 states where it has appeared on a ballot, leaving politicians and analysts to wonder whether Maryland will continue or break the trend.
No state has approved gay marriage by referendum, but nationwide support for such unions has grown steadily in recent years. If the legislation is enacted, Maryland would become the sixth state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow gay marriage.
A January study by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies Inc. showed 51 percent of statewide respondents favored legalizing gay marriage in Maryland while 44.1 percent opposed it.
Delegate Doyle L. Niemann, Prince George's Democrat, said he expects support to grow as Marylanders see how same-sex marriage laws in other states have not brought the catastrophic effects many opponents have predicted, such as endless discrimination lawsuits and declines in heterosexual marriage rates.
"People have found that the world doesn't fall apart," Mr. Niemann said. "Marriages don't collapse, families don't disappear, and the opposition goes way down."
Mr. Dwyer said he expects conditions to be especially favorable for a "no" vote on Election Day 2012, as conservatives who oppose gay marriage turn out in support of a Republican presidential candidate and blacks — who have been shown in polls to oppose gay marriage more frequently than the general population — show up at the polls in support of President Obama.
Gay marriage is already looking to be a factor in the 2012 campaign. The Obama administration last week issued a decision to no longer defend in court part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Sunday night that the president's decision was an attempt to bolster his support among gay-rights activists and like-minded supporters.
He said the GOP-led House is considering a suggestion last week from potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum that the speaker appoint a special House counsel to take up the DOMA case in federal court.
"I'm really disappointed in the president and the Department of Justice in the fact that theyre not going to defend a law that Congress passed overwhelmingly," Mr. Boehner told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "I'd be very surprised if the House didn't decide that they were going to defend the law."
Todd Eberly, interim director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said that while it is difficult to gauge the climate nearly two years from now, the black vote will be especially important in a referendum. He said he expects voters will continue to be driven more by economic than social issues in the election and that conservatives will be easily outnumbered, leaving black voters as the true wild card in a gay-marriage debate.
"For the proponents of same-sex marriage, they've got to speak to African-American voters on the concept of basic fairness," Mr. Eberly said, adding that sentiment against gay marriage among blacks has come largely from religious influences and resentment over comparisons to the civil rights movement. "If proponents can make that case, then Maryland may be the first state to put this up to a ballot and uphold the law."
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