Only Massachusetts allows same-sex marriages - the result of a state Supreme Court decision - while Vermont law allows civil unions, which confer some of the legal benefits of marriage on same-sex couples without giving the relationship the same status.

'A lot more work to do'

Gay-rights advocates here are not completely on the defensive. They're supporting at least one Maryland proposal that would extend the rights of gay couples to make some health care decisions for each other - decisions usually reserved for next of kin, including spouses.

They also saw the Illinois Legislature's decision to buck the national trend by approving a bill last week banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

To them, Jan. 27 will be an opportunity to offer an alternative vision of same-sex unions and portray the gay-rights movement as the modern equivalent of the civil rights and women's equality movements.

"We have a lot more work to do to get it out to people that we're not the bad guys," said the Rev. Harris Thomas, founding pastor of the Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore.

Gay-rights organizers say their event will be held in a church and include clergy who support either gay marriage or legislation extending the rights of gay couples.

The setting and presence of religious leaders are intended to show that "we have truth and justice on our side," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland.

Though the public events are significant to the legislative strategy of both sides, their underlying purpose is to sway voters who are undecided or confused by the issue. According to the Sun poll of 800 likely voters conducted Jan. 4 and 5, there is still room for convincing.

When asked whether they favored or opposed civil unions - which would extend some benefits to gay and lesbian couples short of full marriage - 42 percent were in favor, 48 percent were opposed and 10 percent were undecided.

But the margins among different groups shows that the issue doesn't always follow traditional social fault lines.

Voters under 35 supported civil unions by 53 percent to 39 percent. Those over 65 strongly opposed them, 57 percent to 33 percent.

Republicans, who used the issue nationally to increase turnout in the presidential election, opposed civil unions in Maryland, 66 percent to 26 percent.

Democrats were slightly in favor, with 47 percent expressing support and 42 percent opposing. Independents supported civil unions by a 52 percent-to-38 percent margin.

Among whites, opinion ran against civil unions, 47 percent to 42 percent. The margin was significantly wider among African-Americans, who opposed civil unions by a 58 percent-to-28 percent margin.

African-American clergy have been among the primary organizers of the marriage protection rally.

At a gathering of pastors against gay marriage in Rosedale's Mount Pleasant Baptist Church last fall, organizers showed a video produced by the Traditional Values Coalition that condemned the analogy gay-rights advocates drew in 1993 between their march in Washington and the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.

Gay-rights lobbyists said they don't expect to see legislation that would specifically create civil unions this session.

Pending case

Gay marriage, the more expansive model that conveys all the rights of heterosexual marriage, is under review in the state courts.

In July, nine gay couples filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court challenging Maryland's state law banning gay marriage. They claimed it violates constitutional protections of due process, equality and prohibitions against sex discrimination.

It was the existence of that lawsuit - still to be resolved - that motivated social conservatives such as Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican, and Doug Stiegler, executive director of the Family Protection Lobby, as well as clergy to begin scouting for support last fall.

They said the effort received a boost in November, when voters in all 11 states considering constitutional amendments banning gay marriage approved them.