Maryland will become the focus of the volatile national debate on gay rights today, as a Baltimore Circuit Court judge hears arguments challenging the state's prohibition of same-sex marriages.

On the eve of the legal fight over whether Maryland's marriage law discriminates against same-sex couples, a diverse group of about 50 religious leaders gathered yesterday at a Bolton Hill church to pledge their support for what they called the couples' fundamental rights of marriage.

Maryland is one of at least six such states - the others are Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California - with pending legal challenges to marriage laws.

In the lawsuit, filed in July last year, nine same-sex couples contend that Maryland's 1973 law stating that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid violates their constitutional rights. The suit, to be heard by Judge M. Brooke Murdock, names Baltimore City Clerk Frank Conaway and clerks in four other jurisdictions for refusing to issue them marriage licenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation in New York, the ACLU's Maryland affiliate and local attorneys collaborated on the complaint.

While lawyers from the Maryland attorney general's office are defending the court clerks, the state's prohibition on same-sex marriages is backed by many religious leaders and conservative lawmakers.

The plaintiffs represent a wide diversity of backgrounds and circumstances. For example, a senior gay couple says that without marriage, they cannot be guaranteed the right to make medical decisions for each other. A lesbian couple - one residing in St. Mary's County, the other in Costa Rica - claim that without marriage they cannot live together in the United States.

The lead plaintiffs are Gitanjali Deane and Lisa Polyak, who have been in a committed relationship for two decades and have two daughters, ages 9 and 6. The couple was present yesterday at a gathering of religious leaders at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, where they are members.

Beneath a kaleidoscope of stained glass, clergy representing faiths from Methodism to Reform Judaism declared that marriage for same-sex couples is a matter of civil rights.

'Reform tradition'

"The Reform tradition has always been in the forefront of civil rights, of the movement of women to vote," said Rabbi Bradd Boxman of Har Sinai Congregation. "We stand in this same fight. The voice of my tradition is one that speaks out against injustice everywhere."

Their pledge was as much a show of support to the plaintiffs as it was an attempt to distance themselves from religious leaders who oppose gay marriage.

"One of the most distressing parts of this issue for us is that people have used faith as the bedrock of opposition to same-sex marriage," said Rev. Anthony McCarthy of Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore. "And we want members of the gay community who are religious to know we are there for you. They are not alone."

David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, blames religious opponents for distracting the public from what he sees as the basic civil issues of marriage outlined in the lawsuit.

"These voices have muddied the waters by saying that civil equality is a threat to religious freedom," he said. "Civil marriage for same-sex couples poses no threat to constitutional rights of religious freedom."

Opponents reject that view and say that gay marriage infringes on others.

Mat Staver, president of the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, which is closely watching lawsuits around the country, believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry undermines the institution of marriage.

"Same-sex marriage is putting every household at risk," he said. "Conferring licenses just because two people have a relationship together doesn't mean that is best for the children."

Staver said his organization has more than 700 affiliate attorneys doing pro bono work in states where there are legal challenges to marriage laws. He plans to file an amicus brief in the Maryland case, once Murdock rules and the case likely moves to the appellate level.

"We are watching Maryland closely," he said. "Each one of these lawsuits can potentially set an important precedent."

States are clearly not in agreement about gay rights. While legal challenges are pending in a handful of states, another 16 states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Only Massachusetts allows gay marriage.

In January, clergy from around the state organized the "Defend Maryland Marriage" rally in front of the State House, calling for the legislature to adopt a constitutional ban on gay marriage. The General Assembly did not act on the proposal.

Instead, lawmakers passed several bills to afford more benefits to gay and lesbian couples - including giving gays protection under the state's hate-crime statute, and giving domestic partners the right to make medical decisions for their partners. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed the hate-crime measure but vetoed the medical decision-making bill.

Victories

Those legislative actions were victories for gay-rights advocates, who hailed Maryland's legislative session as second only to Connecticut in its success. Connecticut lawmakers moved to allow civil unions, which confer some, but not all, of the benefits of legal marriage.

The lead plaintiffs, Deane and Polyak, say their mission is about protecting their family. With marriage, they wouldn't have to worry about challenges to the custody of their children.

"Our girls should never have to be periodically confused or anxious that someone would try to separate their family," said Polyak.

For archived coverage of the dialogue over same-sex marriages and civil unions, go to baltimoresun.com/gaymar riage.