Members of the Maryland Legislature joined LGBT activists at a news conference at the state capitol in Annapolis Tuesday to formally launch a campaign to pass a same-sex marriage bill that backers introduced the previous week.
The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act is expected to come up for a committee hearing in the State Senate the first week of February and likely will be sent to the Senate floor for debate and a vote as soon as Feb. 7, according to sources familiar with the measure.
Political insiders have said they believe supporters have the votes this year to pass the measure in the Senate, where it has died in committee in past years. And sources claim the House has had the necessary votes for some time to pass it.
“I am very proud to be a sponsor of this legislation,” said House of Delegates Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D-Mont. County), who holds the No. 2 leadership position in that body. “This bill is a testament to what it means to be an American and what it means to be free and equal in our society.”
Barve was one of more than 25 lawmakers and LGBT advocates and their supporters who attended the Jan. 25 news conference in Annapolis.
Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-Mont. County), the Senate Majority Leader and a sponsor of the marriage bill, told the gathering that gay and straight couples are “no different” in their capacity to love one another.
“It’s time that the rights already enjoyed by many who can obtain a marriage license in Maryland are enjoyed by all regardless of gender and sexual orientation,” he said.
The official registry of bills on the Maryland Legislature’s website shows that the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act was introduced in the House of Delegates on Jan. 20 with 17 sponsors and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
The registry shows that the marriage bill was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 21 with 18 sponsors, including Garagiola and Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), who is gay. It was sent to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of the statewide LGBT group Equality Maryland, the lead advocate for the bill, said another copy of the identical bill was introduced in the House of Delegates Tuesday with 56 sponsors, including Barve, whose name was not on the first House bill introduced last week.
“This is the bill we will be pushing,” she said. “It’s very common to introduce more than one bill. It happens all the time.”
The two-page bill calls for amending the state’s family law, which currently says, “Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state.” The new language in the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act would rewrite that provision to state, “Only a marriage between two individuals who are not otherwise prohibited from marrying is valid in this state.”
A second provision in the bill states that “an official of a religious institution or body authorized to solemnize marriages may not be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and by the Maryland Constitution and Maryland Declaration of Rights.”
Backers say the latter provision, which is similar to a provision in D.C.’s same-sex marriage law, is aimed at assuring religious leaders that churches and other faith-based institutions cannot be forced to perform same-sex marriages.
Equality Maryland and the national same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry jointly sponsored the Tuesday news conference.
Officials with both groups said they were hopeful that growing support for same-sex marriage in the state, as reflected in public opinion polls, would help supporters beat back a well-funded opposition campaign by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to defeat the bill.
NOM President Brian Brown said the group would immediately file a petition to bring a same-sex marriage bill before voters in a referendum if the legislature passes it and Gov. Martin O’Malley signs it. O’Malley, a Democrat, has said he would sign the bill if the legislature passes it.
A statewide poll commissioned by the Washington Post and released this week shows that 51 percent of Maryland voters favor a law allowing same-sex couples to marry, while 44 percent oppose such a law. Five percent had no response on the issue.
The same poll showed O’Malley had a job approval rating 58 percent, the highest approval he’s had since becoming governor, according to the Post. Thirty percent of those polled disapprove of O’Malley’s job performance and 13 percent were not sure, the poll shows.
Although O’Malley’s stated commitment to sign a marriage bill has been widely reported in the media, the high approval rating hasn’t changed his decision not to take an active role in lobbying for the marriage bill.
And in a related development, O’Malley released his legislative agenda for the 2011 session of the legislature that includes at least 15 bills addressing a variety of issues, including healthcare, gun control, child welfare and promotion of electric vehicles.
Missing from O’Malley’s legislative agenda are the marriage bill and a separate bill expected to be introduced this year to ban employment discrimination against transgender residents.
Asked why O’Malley didn’t include the marriage and transgender bills in his agenda list, his press secretary, Shaun Adamec, said in an e-mail that the governor includes only those bills he introduces himself in his agenda list. Adamec said O’Malley supports additional bills that members of the legislature introduce and that he fully supports and plans to sign both the marriage bill and transgender rights bill.
“The Governor has been very clear that achieving equity for all Marylanders continues to be a priority of his,” Adamec said.
“We are here today as part of a growing movement across the country toward fairness and respect for all families,” said Sean Eldridge, political director of Freedom to Marry, at Tuesday’s news conference.
“Same-sex couples are now free to marry in five states and next door in the District of Columbia, as well as a dozen countries worldwide,” he said. “And in each of these places, the sky has not fallen, and families have been helped, with no one hurt. Because there is no good reason to continue excluding same-sex couples from marriage, Freedom to Marry supports the work of our Maryland partners to pass the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act,” he said.
“Make no doubt about it – Maryland is ready for marriage equality, and we will not stop until it is no longer denied to our families,” said Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County), one of five lesbian members of the House of Delegates.