A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland died in the Maryland House of Delegates Friday after supporters determined they did not have the votes to pass it and sent it back to committee without taking a vote.
The decision to return the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which approved it two weeks ago by a one-vote margin, came after an impassioned two-and-a-half hour debate in which six of the House’s seven openly gay members urged their colleagues to support marriage equality.
“It is best to delay this historic vote until we are absolutely sure we have the votes to win,” Equality Maryland, a statewide LGBT group, said in a statement. “While we are disappointed the House did not vote to pass marriage equality today, we are confident we will win in the future.”
House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) said in a news conference after the debate that the bill would be brought back in 2012.
Many LGBT activists watching from the visitor’s gallery did not know of plans to pull the bill if the 71 votes needed to pass it in the 141-member House could not be obtained. Some reacted with shrieks and gasps when the House approved by voice vote a motion to “recommit” the bill to committee, with nearly all of the bill’s supporters voting “aye.”
When asked how close the vote would have been, Busch told reporters that backers of the bill believed a vote would have been “very close” but decided the best course of action would be to give wavering delegates more time to mull over the issue.
“There was a chance we could have had 71,” he said. “There was an opportunity to have 70 or 69…But I think they didn’t feel comfortable that there was the full 71 vote.”
Busch was also asked why a close vote that might have resulted in the bill’s defeat this year was ruled out if everyone agreed to bring the legislation back for a vote next year.
“In my personal opinion, I think those who felt uncomfortable might have voted no and had a tough time coming back and voting yes,” he said.
According to Busch and others familiar with the House of Delegates, no more than about 10 delegates would likely be swayed to change their vote one way or the other. If a vote were held Friday and some voted no, they might be reluctant to vote for the bill next year out of fear of being accusing of being a “flip-flopper,” some of the bill’s supporters said.
Equality Maryland board member Daryl Carrington agreed with Busch’s rationale for avoiding a vote.
“We did not want to have a negative vote on the record,” said Carrington. “And we believe that it gives us the time we need. It was a strategic step to give us the additional time we need to get this done.”
Supporters lined up enough votes to defeat two amendments considered hostile to the bill, raising the possibility that backers of the bill might have enough support to pass the measure.
One of the amendments, introduced by Del. John Olszewski (D-Baltimore County), called for expanding a provision in the bill that allows religious institutions to refuse to provide goods and services and accommodations related to the “promotion of marriage” if doing so violates the institution’s religious beliefs.
The bill limits the exemptions to “religious programs, counseling, educational courses, summer camps, and retreats.” Oloszewski’s amendment would have expanded the exemption to include any program or activity operated by a religious institution, even if such products or services were offered to the general public.
The amendment was defeated by voice vote.
The second amendment, offered by Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore City), called for eliminating the bill’s marriage provisions entirely and turning it into a civil unions bill. Her amendment also went down to defeat by a voice vote. When she asked for a roll call vote to verify the vote breakdown, Busch used his authority as speaker to refuse the roll call vote request.
Del. Emmett Burns (D-Baltimore County), an opponent of the bill, argued during the debate that the bill’s supporters were incorrectly comparing their quest for marriage equality and other LGBT rights initiatives with the black civil rights movement.
He said same-sex marriage had nothing to do with civil rights, adding that it would “validate and uphold the homosexual lifestyle,” which is contrary to his religious beliefs.
“I am a black man. I cannot change my color,” he said. “Those who are gay can disguise their propensity. They can disguise who they are.”
Del. Keiffer Mitchell (D-Baltimore City), a supporter of the marriage bill, took exception to Burns’ interpretation of the civil rights movement. Noting that he is the grandson of nationally acclaimed African-American civil rights activist Clarence Mitchell, Keiffer Mitchell said he was honored that the LGBT community and other minorities have modeled their own struggles for equality on the black civil rights movement.
Although the LGBT civil rights struggle is not the same as the black civil rights struggle, it is still falls under the category of civil rights.
“When we deny people equality under the law it is a civil rights issue,” he said.
Lesbian Delegates Heather Mizeur, Anne Kaiser, and Bonnie Cullison, each a Democrat from Montgomery County; lesbian Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City); and gay Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) each gave impassioned floor speeches about how legalizing same-sex marriage would impact them.
While not mentioning fellow delegates opposing the bill by name, each said they were troubled and, in some cases, hurt and offended by opponents’ claims that allowing them to marry would harm children, take away religious rights, and damage the institution of marriage.
Mizeur told of her own struggle as a devout Catholic with her sexual orientation as a teenager and young adult. She said she has long since reconciled her identity as a lesbian and devoted Christian, saying she believes deeply that God accepts her for who she is.
Noting she and her partner have been married for five years, Mizeur said, “What we’re asking for is equal protection under the law…You can still choose to believe we are immoral.”