ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley remained firm in his support for a bill to legalize same-sex marriage Friday during a contentious joint hearing on the bill before two committees of the state’s House of Delegates.
After O’Malley and two prominent black ministers testified in support of the bill, the three were grilled with questions by two of the bill’s strongest opponents, Del. Don Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel County) and Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington County).
The two delegates disputed O’Malley’s claim that the bill would protect the religious rights of those who say same-sex marriage conflicts with their faith and asked the governor to support new language in the bill that would clear it for an immediate voter referendum.
“I think the people have already spoken in a real sense by sending each of you here to make the decision on this issue,” O’Malley said in response to the delegates’ calls for a referendum.
“It is not right or just that the children of gay couples should have lesser protections than the children of other families in our state,” he said in his testimony in support of the bill. “Nor would it be right to force religious institutions to conduct marriages that conflict with their own religious beliefs and teachings.”
He added, “This bill balances equal protection of individual civil marriage rights with the important protection of religious freedom for all.”
O’Malley and the two ministers who sat beside him at the witness table, Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., and Rev. Donte Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, were the first three of dozens of witnesses expected to testify at the hearing.
The hearing, which was conducted jointly by the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee and Health and Government Operations Committee, began at 1:15 p.m. and lasted until close to 11 p.m.
Some witnesses opposing the bill expressed concern that House Speaker Michael Busch broke tradition by adding the Health and Government Operations panel to join the Judiciary Committee in overseeing the bill after determining that support for the bill in the Judiciary panel was waning and supporters may not have the votes in the committee to send it to the House floor.
Under House rules, the bill would be sent to the full House for a vote if one of the two committees votes to approve it.
Dwyer and Del. Emmett Burns (D-Baltimore County), one of the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage in the legislature, came to the witness table to testify as the first opposing witnesses at the hearing.
While speaking as a witness, Dwyer presented a documentary style video to the committee that alleged that legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts forced school children to undergo “indoctrination” in public schools on homosexuality.
The video included an interview of the father of an elementary school student who said he was arrested and jailed for staging a one-person protest against the school policy.
Same-sex marriage supporters in Massachusetts and Maryland have characterized as untrue claims that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to school curriculum changes. They say curricular changes to address issues of sexual orientation in Massachusetts were under consideration before same-sex marriage became legal in the state and would likely have been adopted even if Massachusetts didn’t legalize same-sex marriage.
Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery County), one of seven out gay members of the Maryland Legislature, disputed Dwyer and Parrott on the school curriculum question during the hearing, saying “not a syllable” could be found in the Civil Marriage Protection Act that would change school curricula.
Burns, in referring to O’Malley’s contention that the marriage bill protects religious freedom, called such a claim irrelevant, saying legal recognition of same-sex marriage would be a disaster for children, families and all people of faith in the state.
“I don’t want your protections,” he said. “I don’t need your protections. I don’t want the bill.”
Similar to a hearing held on the marriage bill on Jan. 31 by the State Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, many of the same witnesses, including ministers and other clergy, testified on Friday and appeared to be evenly divided, with more than a dozen clergy members testifying on both sides of the issue.
“Regarding the rite of marriage, the practice of our local church is rooted in our understanding of the history and etymology of the term matrimony,” said Rev. Coats, who testified in favor of the bill at O’Malley’s side. “Therefore, wedding ceremonies witnessed and presided over at our church acknowledge the union of a man and a woman in a sacred ceremony,” he said.
“With that said, I am here today to express my full support of the proposed Civil Marriage Protection Act as proposed by the governor,” he said. “As a matter of public policy, I believe it is the obligation of the state to insure that all of her citizens are protected equally under the law.”
Hickman said, he too, believes the bill adequately distinguishes civil marriages from religious marriages.
“I believe that marriage is a God-ordained, spiritual and mystical union between a Christian man and a Christian woman,” he said. But he added, “I support the Civil Marriage Protection Act because it is civil and not religious. And as a matter of public policy and human rights it doesn’t threaten my religious convictions nor does it obligate me or my church to officiate or promulgate same-sex marriages.”
O’Malley appeared to respond with caution to Parrott’s repeated questions about whether a same-sex marriage bill in Maryland would lead to the teaching of homosexuality to elementary school students in the state’s public schools.
“In Massachusetts this same bill forced teachers to teach same-sex marriage to their students even when it violated their own religious beliefs,” Parrott told the governor. “Are you OK with that in this bill?”
“No, and I don’t believe that’s what this bill does,” O’Malley said.
“Historically, parents do not have the right to pull their kids out of classes when it violates their religious teachings regarding marriage and family,” Parrott said. “Actually some of them have gone to jail in Massachusetts. Are you OK with that consequence to this bill?”
“No, I’m not aware of that and that is not in this bill,” O’Malley replied. “There are specific, clear prohibitions against forcing any religion to change or teach things that are contrary to its religious beliefs.”
Parrott ended the exchange by asking O’Malley if he would be inclined to amend the bill to “specifically protect students, teachers and parents so that [homosexuality] is not taught in the school system.”
O’Malley replied, “I think that anything that reinforces the inalienable and indispensible right of the free exercise of religions and individual conscience is a good thing.”
The governor’s press spokesperson couldn’t be immediately reached to clarify whether O’Malley was suggesting he might support new language in the bill to ban the teaching of gay-related subjects in the state’s school system.