About 1,000 people huddled in front of the State House yesterday to call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Maryland, cheering a succession of preachers and politicians - including Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - at what was called the Defend Maryland Marriage rally.
"We are here to affirm that marriage is only between a man and a woman," Steele told an appreciative crowd. "We need to make it clear where Maryland stands."
Steele was the most senior state official at the afternoon rally, mostly a religious gathering where each speech was punctuated by a rousing prayer and where many in the crowd had caught a ride on one of the church-chartered buses.
His short speech was devoid of religious references - a marked contrast from the other speakers.
"This gathering is an expression of the desire of the Christian community in Maryland," the Rev. Harry Jackson Jr., pastor of the Hope Christian Church in Bowie, said as he opened the two-hour rally.
The crowd, bundled against freezing temperatures, responded with cheers. Beyond their religious affiliation, they were a diverse crowd of young and old and of different races from across the state.
Their presence was the culmination of months of planning by dozens of pastors. Though organizers earlier had predicted a turnout of tens of thousands, many still claimed success at drawing so many to Lawyers Mall outside the State House on such a cold January day.
The rally's goal was to show support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage, which will be considered in the legislature this session.
Maryland state law already codifies heterosexual marriage. Since nine gay couples filed a lawsuit challenging that law in Baltimore Circuit Court last July, however, many opponents of gay marriage fear the courts will strike it down.
The best defense, they argue, is to adopt a constitutional amendment. Seventeen states have such an amendment, and 11 of those were approved by voters this past Election Day.
An amendment banning gay marriage was proposed in Maryland last year, but did not make it out of the House Judiciary Committee. Earlier this month, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Prince George's County Democrat who leads the committee, told The Sun that it was doubtful a new amendment would get his support.
But a common refrain among speakers was that yesterday's gathering was the first of many events they hope will draw attention to an issue long considered too conservative for the Democratic-leaning state.
The crowd cheered through about a dozen speeches and as many prayers from the Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder of the national Traditional Values Coalition; U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett; and the Rev. Clifford Johnson, senior pastor of Baltimore County's Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, among others.
"Today, to see all these people come out on a bitter cold day, I think people are standing up to be heard," said the Rev. Steve Stubblefield, who rented a bus to transport 50 members of his Oak Grove Baptist Church congregation in Bel Air. Smiling into the two scarves wrapped around his neck, he said Steele's presence made him hopeful that Maryland soon will join the roster of states with constitutional amendments.
Steele, in fact, did not express support for such an amendment at the rally. Instead, he praised the general notion of restricting legal marriage to heterosexual couples. He left the rally without answering follow-up questions.
Later, spokeswoman Regan Hopper said "his support at the rally was in support of the current law."
Steele told the crowd that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would have spoken at the rally but had a scheduling conflict. "Please know he is here in spirit as I am here physically," Steele said.
Ehrlich's spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver, said the governor was headed to New York for an Ivy League football group's dinner in his honor. She said that he would have spoken to the crowd because he supports restricting marriage to heterosexual couples, although he has not yet decided if he will support a constitutional amendment.
Gay marriage advocates, meanwhile, argued against an amendment and also took issue with the religiosity of the rally. A smaller group of gay rights supporters gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis yesterday to point out that not all clergy members are against gay marriage.
The Rev. Harris Thomas, the openly gay founder of Unity Fellowship Church in Baltimore, said, "It is vitally important to show Marylanders that people of faith also believe in equal rights and equal protection under the law for all, including families headed by same-sex couples."