ANNAPOLIS | When the Maryland Senate voted last month with little debate to legalize same-sex marriage, the issue went from one never strongly considered in the General Assembly to one whose time appeared to have arrived.
The bill was expected to pass with even less opposition in the more liberal House, then go directly to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who all but promised his signature. However, it narrowly passed a House committee Friday, with several co-sponsors wavering, and could face an even rougher time when deliberations start Tuesday on the House floor.
Delegate Don H. Dwyer Jr., Anne Arundel Republican and outspoken bill critic, said he expects a spirited debate. But Democratic lawmakers agree that voters — including religious leaders back home — are increasingly having the biggest impact in the effort to defeat the legislation.
"The longer there is a delay [in the House], the more of an opportunity we will have to work the public," Mr. Dwyer said. "People are receiving a lot of phone calls and e-mails on the issue, and we're going to continue to fight the fight."
Derek McCoy of the Maryland Family Alliance, a faith-based group opposed to gay marriage, said there is "no question" Catholic and black ministers are mobilized.
Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, Baltimore Democrat and bill co-sponsor, said in late February his party was two or three votes shy of the 71 needed. However, by Friday both parties in the Democrat-controlled Assembly acknowledged the count was too close to call, as voters increasingly telephoned or contacted lawmakers via Facebook and other social networks.
"One minute, someone's with you, and the next minute, they're kind of wavering in the unknown column," said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat who is openly gay.
"If people were voting based on their conscience and not on their constituents, this would be over with," she said. "We have a supermajority in this chamber that thinks this is the right thing to do. But politics at home are playing out in different ways."
Ms. Mizeur said she believes supporters have enough votes, but the outcome will likely be decided by a handful of delegates who have yet to take a side or have cold feet.
Delegate Melvin L. Stukes, Baltimore Democrat and co-sponsor, said he withdrew his support upon realizing the bill granted more privileges than civil unions.
Last week, bill co-sponsors Delegates Jill P. Carter, Baltimore Democrat, and Tiffany T. Alston, Prince George's Democrat, missed a scheduled House Judiciary Committee vote on the issue. While Ms. Carter later reaffirmed her support, Ms. Alston ultimately said she was swayed by unhappy constituents to vote against it.
"My community does not like this bill," said Ms. Alston, who made a failed, last-minute attempt to change the legislation to legalize civil unions while leaving marriage between a man and a woman.
The House will consider proposed amendments during its floor discussion, but any changes to the bill would also have to be approved by the Senate, complicating the bill's passage. If the Senate disputes any changes, the two bodies would have to resolve their differences in a conference committee.
Delegate Kevin Kelly, Allegany Democrat, said he thinks House leaders are pressing freshman delegates to vote in favor of the bill without amendments to make the process as simple as possible.
He said he expects the bill to pass but that House Democratic leaders will "break the arms" of rank-and-file party members to get it done.
Delegate Pamela G. Beidle, Anne Arundel Democrat who is undecided on the bill, said she has received no such pressure. Mrs. Beidle said she is torn on the issue as a practicing Catholic who believes gay marriage is a civil rights issue.
"It's a difficult decision between your religion and just feeling that it's a right people should have," she said. "I think votes are there, but I think it's going to be real close."
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