ANNAPOLIS — After months of anticipation, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage have descended on Annapolis this week as the General Assembly begins discussion on a proposed bill to legalize gay weddings.
A Senate committee will hold a public hearing Tuesday on a bill proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat,which would make Maryland the seventh state to legalize gay marriage.
Opponents got a head start on the debate Monday night in Annapolis when they rallied in hopes of defeating gay marriage for a second straight year.
Last year, lawmakers and activists on both sides acknowledged they were caught off guard by the bill and ramped up their efforts only after it passed the Senate with surprising ease. This year, they have had nearly a year to prepare for what will likely be the marquee fight of the 2012 session.
"The only thing that I do right now in the legislature is work every hour of every day to defeat that bill," said Delegate Don H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican and outspoken critic of gay marriage. "We're not opposing gay rights, the gay lifestyle, none of that. What we're focused on is making sure that marriage between a man and a woman is protected in this state."
While activists will be out in full force this week, an opening salvo was provided last week by Mr. O'Malley's wife, Catherine "Katie" Curran O'Malley.
Mrs. O'Malley, while speaking at a gay-rights conference in Baltimore, said last year's bill failed in the House because "there were some cowards that prevented it from passing." She apologized Friday for the comment.
Supporters of gay marriage are expected to make the case that it will put gay couples on equal footing with heterosexual couples and will do so without undermining traditional marriage or forcing opposing religious institutions to change their practices or perform or recognize the unions.
Mr. O'Malley has emphasized religious protections as a major part of his bill, hoping to follow in the footsteps of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who used a similar approach last year to successfully shepherd a gay-marriage bill through his state's Legislature.
Maryland's gay-marriage bill failed last year largely because of opposition from conservative Democrats and black Democrats who had their own religious objections or received pressure from religious constituents.
"It's not about rights and benefits," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery Democrat and the General Assembly's only openly gay senator. "It's about the opportunity to find that person to love and make it last for a lifetime."
Gay marriage is expected to pass the Senate with relative ease and will precede a more contentious debate in the House, where it never came to a vote last year but was likely three votes short of approval.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will hold its hearing Tuesday and could vote on the bill next week, said committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat, has said he hopes to move the bill to the House as quickly as possible.
"I don't think the votes will change," Mr. Frosh said. "We have a lot of other very controversial stuff and I don't think he wants this tying up the Senate at the end of the session."
If the bill passes the Senate, it will move to the House, where lawmakers will take the legal but unusual step of referring it to two standing committees: the House Judiciary Committee and Health and Government Operations Committee.
Democratic leaders say the move is necessary because gay marriage deals with two distinct areas of law — family law, which is usually handled by Judiciary, and civil rights, which are typically handled by Health and Government Operations.
The committees are expected to hold a joint hearing on the bill and could vote on it separately or as a joint body. If they vote separately, passage by one committee but not the other would still move the bill to the House floor.
Last year's bill narrowly passed the Judiciary Committee, and opponents argue referring this year's legislation to two committees is designed to increase its odds of passage.
"There's only one reason they'd send it to a joint committee," Mr. Dwyer said. "The heads have already been counted and there's enough votes to put it out."
Most officials acknowledge that if the bill passes, there is a strong chance opponents will gather enough signatures to force it to a November referendum.
Marylanders are split evenly on the issue, according to a poll released this month by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc.
The poll showed 49 percent of respondents favored gay marriage while 47 percent opposed. There was a 3.5 percent margin of error.
"We know we've got a lot of hard work and we're prepared to do it," said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat.
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