- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley’s renewed fight to legalize same-sex marriage will depend heavily on assuring religious groups that his proposed legislation won’t infringe on their beliefs or opposition to the weddings.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, met Tuesday with lawmakers, activists and religious leaders who support his bill, which was introduced Monday in the Senate.

The governor appears to be aiming his message most prominently at black Democrats, who oppose gay marriage in greater numbers than other Democrats and often cite religious beliefs as the reason.

He said he plans to show opponents that allowing gays to marry would afford gay couples a fundamental right but would not require religious institutions that disagree to perform or recognize the ceremonies.

“One can have their religious beliefs but also agree that in a religiously pluralistic state like ours, a religiously pluralistic country like ours, we all have to find ways to get along and our laws have to protect rights equally,” the governor said.

The legislation now goes before the state’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation for a second straight year, but its fate likely will be decided in a contentious House battle.

House leaders attempted to bring the bill to a full chamber vote in the 2011 assembly but couldn’t after realizing they were about three votes short of the required 71.

Every House Republican opposed the bill, as did many moderate and socially conservative Democrats.

Many black Democrats from Prince George’s County and Baltimore opposed the bill on religious grounds or because of religion-based objections from constituents.

Mr. O’Malley spoke to reporters Tuesday morning in front of the governor’s mansion, where he was backed by a couple dozen supporters, including several prominently placed black activists, clergy members and union leaders.

Speakers included a young male black couple; Starlene Joyner Burns, a nondenominational minister from Bowie; and Ezekiel Jackson, a political organizer for 1199 SEIU, a union that largely represents black health care workers.

“Contrary to what some white folks would say, we’re not all one monolith on this issue,” Mr. Jackson said.

A gay-marriage bill will still face strong objections from Republicans as well as many white and black religious leaders who worry it will delegitimize traditional marriage and potentially open the doors for lawsuits against religious organizations that refuse to condone gay marriage.

Mr. O’Malley said repeatedly that his bill would protect religious institutions’ rights not to perform or recognize any marriage with which they disagree.

He said he plans to get that point across to lawmakers as well as voters in case the bill passes but is forced to referendum by opponents.

Six states and the District have legalized gay marriage, and Maryland is one of several states, including New Jersey and Washington, expected to consider bills this year.

The governor has been criticized for not taking a more active role last year in attempting to get the bill passed.
Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and minister, said gay marriage would undermine religion and that the only clergy members who support it are “quasi, fake religious leaders.”

“Don’t give me something I don’t want, then protect me from it,” said Mr. Burns, who is black. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Democratic leaders have estimated this month that they are still about three votes shy of a majority in the House. But Delegate Heather R. Mizeur said gay-marriage supporters have made progress and anticipate getting a majority.

Ms. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat and one of seven openly gay delegates, said lawmakers intend to be more tight-lipped this year about vote counts.

She said supporters were perhaps too vocal last year, which enabled opponents to target lawmakers who were known to be undecided or waning in their support.

“We’re holding it closer to our chests,” she said. “But I personally have had some conversations where I know of some votes that are going to be coming.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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