September 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm EDT | by Steve Charing
Plan now for a marriage referendum in Maryland

After the victory on the marriage equality bill in the Senate during the 2011 Maryland General Assembly, I asked a former official at Equality Maryland if plans were afoot to combat a likely referendum should the marriage bill be signed into law. That person said that, “we are focused on winning in the House, and we’ll worry about the referendum later.”

On the surface, that response seemed prudent. The legislative battle had yet to be won, and energy and resources must be dedicated to jumping that hurdle before you look further down the track. And with a potential ballot initiative taking place 19 months in the future, arguably there was time to mount a strong defense.

Unfortunately, the marriage bill fell short by only a few votes in the House without an actual floor vote taken. On top of that, Equality Maryland, the principal group leading the legislative effort, essentially imploded in terms of organizational stability, finances, and to some extent, its reputation within the LGBT community.

Its board, which fired the executive director and experienced multiple resignations following the session, is attempting to bounce back. But Equality Maryland will not be the vanguard for the marriage bill, as a new organization, Marylanders for Marriage Equality (MME), was launched in July.

Nor will Equality Maryland be the sole steward to secure protections on the basis of gender identity, as that effort is being headed by Gender Rights Maryland. That bill could also face a referendum attempt.

The fledgling MME is a coalition of organizations that will renew the fight in the legislature. It is comprised of Progressive Maryland, 1199 SEIU, ACLU, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as well as Equality Maryland.

If the marriage bill is passed and signed into law, you can assume the opposition will garner the required number of signatures, regardless of the method, and the issue—“Should marriage only be between a man and a woman?”—will be offered to the voters.   And with the next General Assembly ending in April 2012, there is precious little time to organize, raise funds, and execute a winning strategy to thwart the inevitable referendum come November.

Accordingly, the time to plan for such an eventuality is now—not after the bill is signed and the predictable celebrations fade away.

The main focus of the plan should be to bring in money—lots of it—and in a down economy to boot. Just to raise funds to counter the advertisements by opponents in the high-priced media markets of Baltimore and Washington will be daunting in itself. The need for printed material, phone banking and other related expenses will cost a bundle as well.

There will be a plethora of well-funded, well-organized groups from within Maryland and throughout the U.S. that will be highly motivated to ensure that marriage equality does not stand in Maryland. This opposition is formidable and will include but is not limited to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the Catholic Archdiocese, Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, the Mormon Church and the mega-churches in predominantly African-American areas of Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.

NOM alone spent $1.8 million in support of Proposition 8 in 2008. The next year in Maine, NOM was the majority contributor to the anti-equality Stand for Marriage Maine with $1.6 million geared toward Question 1. Overall, in 2009, NOM’s total expenditures were roughly $7.5 million.

The task becomes even more exigent as a full-blown, all-out education campaign is required, especially among African-Americans and Catholics. With President Obama on the 2012 ticket, turnout among black voters is expected to be high. This is particularly significant in Maryland with its high proportion of African Americans (nearly 30 percent). And according to the Public Religion Research Institute, 2 out of 3 African-American Protestants oppose marriage for same-sex couples.

Older citizens tend to be socially conservative, and as a group, they are more apt to vote. Moreover, the Dream Act referendum will also be on the ballot drawing out many voters to defeat that law who are also likely to oppose same-sex marriage.

If the opposition succeeds, the law is dead, and it could take decades before politicians decide to overrule the “will of the people.”

For Marylanders for Marriage Equality it’s understandable to focus on winning the immediate battle in the legislature. But it will be useless if we lose the war. To win the war we have to match our opponents dollar for dollar and then some. Start the planning now!


  • I agree the smart thing to do it start planning for the vote. People need to start producing TV Commercials now and start organizing Social Media campaigns. This needs to be started now. We have a little over a year before the vote.

    Also we need people on the ground at malls, sporting events, etc talking to people and getting their support.

    • Support for what? to oppose it? If it’s to be a proponent in favor of gay marriage, then you largely need to focus on african-american fundamentalists and evangelicals who instilled fear in certain elected officials if they positively supported it.

      • I agree. Equality Maryland needs to do more outreach to the African American community. NOM already has built strong ties with them. There is a Baltimore Raven who supports same-sex marriage which could help with this.

  • Kudos, Steve! Thank you for sounding this wake up call so clearly and succinctly. I am very worried that all the individuals and organizations that are fighting for marriage equality are not looking ahead nor planning for the defeat of this inevitable referendum. The time is now, not later. Defeating the referendum will not be a lobbying effort, but rather an educational one. The voters must be enlightened and made aware of the dishonest arguments and sound bites that will be used to defeat the marriage equality bill. We must present the winning argument to them using facts and truths. We will also need to mobilize those who won’t bother to vote – many of them in the LGBT community – because the conservatives who oppose us will certainly have their voters out in force. All of us need to “put a face on gay” and get out there and do our part. It will be a grass roots effort and it needs to start immediately. Thanks for this excellent commentary, Steve.

  • I am ready, willing, and able to help with this effort. Where do I start, where do I go, who do I need to know?

    Perhaps a voter registration drive for glbt aged 18-30.

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