Gay-marriage foes play petition card

Referendum vowed if Md. legalizes it

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Supporters of same-sex marriage in Maryland have quickly shaken off their defeat in this year’s General Assembly and reorganized for another drive. But opponents say they are equally ready if a bill passes in 2012 and could employ a petition drive similar to the one that will likely force a referendum on the state’s recently passed Dream Act.

“I don’t think you can use a petition drive for every issue that goes down the road,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican. “But anything that pushes the envelope and gets people’s hot buttons pushed, the potential is there, and it’s real.”

The petition drive against the Dream Act, which would allow in-state tuition rates for many illegal immigrants, had gathered more than 100,000 valid signatures as of Wednesday - nearly twice the number needed to suspend the law and send it to a November 2012 referendum.

Organizers attribute their success in large part to offering an online petition - which accounted for about one-third of the first 47,000 validated signatures and helped make the effort Maryland’s first successful statewide petition drive since 1992.

If the assembly legalizes gay marriage, opponents could pattern their efforts after the Dream Act drive, which used a website and a grass-roots volunteer campaign to collect signatures greatly exceeding organizers’ expectations.

Gay-marriage supporters held a rally Tuesday in Baltimore to announce they have formed a coalition for the 2012 legislative session that includes such groups as Equality Maryland, Service Employees Union International, Catholics for Equality and the Human Rights Campaign.

Equality Maryland, which led this year’s unsuccessful effort, has since trimmed its staff, gained support from national advocacy groups and has drawn inspiration from the New York Legislature’s passing a same-sex marriage bill last month.

Equality Maryland hopes to improve upon last year’s effort, in which the bill easily passed the Senate, but hit unexpected problems and died in the House when some Democratic lawmakerswithdrew their support.

The bill gained support from only one Republican state legislator and failed largely because of a lack of support from moderate Democrats and black legislators from socially conservative, church-going districts.

Supporter hope to broaden support and have asked Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, to become more engaged and follow the lead of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who vocally led a successful effort to win over socially conservative party members and some Republicans.

Mr. O’Malley was criticized this year for being too quiet, but has insisted he spoke privately with many legislators about the bill. Administration officials say the governor expects to be more active next year and is even considering sponsoring a gay-marriage bill.

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor is firmly behind gay marriage and hopes to “decide quickly” on whether to sponsor the bill.

She eschewed predictions from some political analysts that Democrats are taking a risk by pushing gay marriage, because a possible referendum on the issue could further encourage conservative turnout at the polls next year.

“The advocacy groups have focused, reorganized and have come up with a stronger plan to get this done,” she said. “We want to make sure that we come up with a plan that best ensures passage.”

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