The nation's changing views on same-sex marriage and new support from black leaders could put Maryland on track toward becoming the first state to cast a public vote in favor of gay marriage, according to a poll released Thursday.
The survey from liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling showed 57 percent of Maryland voters would vote for gay marriage if it is put to referendum this fall and just 37 percent would vote against it — a stark departure from past polls by the firm and other groups that have shown Marylanders to be almost evenly divided on the issue.
More than 30 states have put same-sex marriage to a statewide vote and all have rejected it. North Carolina voted handily this month to define marriage as between a man and woman.
Maryland is one of four states that could put the issue on the ballot this November, and many supporters and opponents acknowledge that growing public support for same-sex marriage and the state's left-leaning politics could make this one of the closest votes yet.
"We're going to have to earn the voters' support and make sure that they understand our position," said Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which has led opposition to the law. "Even though the numbers show that we are very tight ... Maryland is going to be a very hard place for [gay-marriage supporters] to win."
Maryland's gay-marriage law was passed in February but is not slated to go into effect until January. It is widely expected that opponents will gather the required 55,736 valid voter signatures by June 30 to send the law to a November referendum.
It remains to be seen how accurate the Public Policy survey will prove. The firm released a poll May 1 that underestimated support for North Carolina's amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman.
The poll by the North Carolina-based firm showed that voters favored the amendment by a 14-point margin. One week later, voters approved it by 22 points.
The group's Maryland survey shows a major increase in support for gay marriage since an earlier poll it conducted in March, which showed that 52 percent of Maryland voters favored gay marriage while 44 percent opposed it.
This month's poll was taken from May 14 to 21 and surveyed 852 likely voters. It has a 3.4 percent margin of error.
"There is an evolution of thought here that is starting to, hopefully, complete its course," said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat, who is openly gay. "I think this says that Marylanders are fair-minded people who support love over fear and justice over discrimination."
Pollsters attributed the swing to a groundswell of support among black voters, who have long opposed gay marriage in greater numbers than whites largely because of religious influences.
According to the poll, 55 percent of black voters now say they would vote for gay marriage while 36 percent say they would vote against it.
In March, 39 percent of black voters favored the law while 56 percent were against it.
Pollsters suggested the swing could be due in part to President Obama's May 9 endorsement of gay marriage. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also announced in recent days that it thinks gays should be allowed to wed.
The Rev. Donte' L. Hickman Sr., pastor at Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, says his religion prohibits him from presiding over a gay wedding but that he thinks gays should be entitled to secular, state-recognized marriage.
The pastor said leaders who support gay marriage are just now catching up to views that have long existed in the public.
"I think the pews are ahead of a lot of the pulpits," he said. "The church should not allow its convictions to impose upon other people's human rights."
While gay-marriage supporters say momentum is on their side, opponents argue that Mr. Obama, the NAACP and other groups are out of touch with the American public.
Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., a black Baptist minister who opposes gay marriage, blasted the Public Policy survey as a "push poll" and said it is part of an ongoing effort to coax the public into voting in favor of Maryland's law.
"I have some oceanfront property in Nebraska I want to sell you if you believe that poll," said Mr. Burns, Baltimore County Democrat. "Those in government who support this are following a small minority that has a powerful agenda that they are afraid to oppose."
Both sides will be in for a tough battle until November, as local and national groups are expected to spend millions in campaign dollars to sway public opinion.
Supporters have been lead by state Democrats and Marylanders for Marriage Equality — a coalition that includes unions and select religious leaders, as well as gay-rights groups Equality Maryland and the Human Rights Campaign.
Opposition has come largely from the religious community, Republicans and some black Democrats, and it has been led by the Maryland Marriage Alliance and National Organization for Marriage.
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