Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged on Friday to lead the charge next year for a law to recognize same-sex marriage in Maryland, saying he would include the effort among a "handful" of legislative priorities during the 2012 session.
Supporters predicted the Democratic governor's full backing could give the measure the push needed for passage. A same-sex marriage bill cleared the state Senate this year, but was pulled from the floor of the House of Delegates after vote-counters determined they were a few delegates shy of a majority.
Speaking to reporters in Annapolis, O'Malley said Marylanders need to look at the issue "from the eyes of children of gay couples" and should ask "how one family can be protected less in the eyes of the law than another family."
"I don't think that is an injustice that should be allowed to stand," O'Malley said. If the effort succeeds, Maryland would become the seventh state to allow same-sex nuptials. The District of Columbia also allows such marriages.
O'Malley's announcement came on the same day that President Barack Obama certified the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the policy that forced gay members of the military to hide their sexual orientation or face expulsion.
And it came two days before New York is scheduled to issue its first marriage licenses to same-sex couples. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat elected last fall, led the effort there; his success has sparked speculation that he could be a presidential contender in 2016.
O'Malley and others advocates said they would try to learn from the Empire State.
"It is a fundamental truth that with every accomplishment further accomplishments appear possible," O'Malley said. A lifelong Catholic, he spoke admiringly of the protections for religious groups written into the New York law, which were similar to those in the Senate passed version of Maryland's bill.
He did not describe how his bill might differ from the one that was debated this year in Maryland.
The Maryland Catholic Conference called O'Malley's the decision "regrettable" and said the "the moral and social impacts of redefining marriage would be pervasive and severe."
Senate Republican Leader Nancy Jacobs vowed to "fight vehemently" against the governor's bill. She said she would support extending "legal rights" to gay couples, but would stop at recognizing same-sex marriage. She said O'Malley's bill "threatens the institution of the traditional family."
Rumors that O'Malley would sponsor a same-sex marriage bill next year had circulated for weeks. The announcement completes a 180-degree turn for a politician who said just five years ago that he was "raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman."
He said at that time that he opposed gay weddings but favored civil unions for same-sex couples — an arrangement that offers some tax benefits and legal protections.
O'Malley was asked three times during the news conference Friday to explain his personal evolution on the issue. He said that he did not want to spend too much time "rolling around" in his individual story, but said that his upbringing in the Catholic Church and attending Catholic schools had be influential in his early thinking.
Others played down the significance of O'Malley's shift. Del. Maggie McIntosh, a powerful Baltimore delegate who was the first openly gay member of the General Assembly — called O'Malley a "steadfast partner."
She pointed to O'Malley's record as mayor of Baltimore, where he implemented a law that prohibited employers and landlords from discriminating against employees and tenants based on sexual orientation, and in Annapolis, where he has signed bills that guarantee the right of same-sex partners to visit each other in the hospital and extend some tax rights.
O'Malley's change of heart on same-sex marriage tracks closely with public opinion. A Sun poll in 2008 showed that 19 percent of likely voters supported the arrangement (39 percent said they would back civil unions.) A Washington Post poll in May 2010 found that support had risen to 46 percent.
"The ability to come together around marital equality is one of the faster moving issues that we've seen in our country for some time," O'Malley said Friday.
Though both houses of the General Assembly are dominated by O'Malley's fellow Democrats, inclusion on the governor's legislative agenda is by no means a guarantor of success.
Last session O'Malley came up short on two of his top three priorities: He was unable to pass a bill to create wind energy farms or legislation limiting the use of septic systems. He did not succeed two years ago in repealing the death penalty, an issue he had put at the top of his to-do list.
This year, the governor has a powerful means of persuasion: He is leading redistricting, the process by which the state draws new districts for lawmakers. But O'Malley said he would not use that as a threat to strong-arm wavering delegates.
O'Malley tasked his top legislative aide with spearheading the effort to move a same-sex marriage bill in 2012.
Joseph C. Bryce, a well-respected presence in Annapolis, said he would put in "as much time as it takes" to secure passage.
Supporters are hoping to pick up a few middle-of-the-road Republicans to support their effort. Democratic Sen. Robert J. Garagiola made a direct appeal to GOP lawmakers during O'Malley's news conference.
"The party of Lincoln and the tea party talk about life, liberty and happiness," he said. "To me this is an issue where Democrats and Republicans can come together."
Only one Republican lawmaker voted for this year's same-sex marriage bill. Sen. Allan Kittleman stepped down as Senate Republican leader after announcing that he would vote for the bill.
Though governors do not typically roll out new priorities in mid-July, supporters said they need as much time as possible to lay the groundwork for support.
Many were caught off-guard late last year when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller reconfigured a key committee with more members who supported gay marriage. Though Miller did not support the bill personally, he allowed it to come to a vote, and worked to prevent a filibuster.
Aides to O'Malley say the surprise nature of the bill's passage through the Senate left supporters short of time to pull together an effective coalition to ensure success in the House.
But now there's a group of unions, civil liberties groups and some clergy called Marylanders for Marriage Equality, which plan to tap their networks to built support.
McIntosh said that O'Malley's backing would be a "big plus" for the bill. She said that a small group of like-minded lawmakers began talking shortly after the measure failed in the House this year and determined that "everybody needed to be far more visible."
It was then that lawmakers started pressing O'Malley to put his name on the legislation. One key supporter, Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, says that he asked the governor to sponsor a bill every time they saw each other.
Madaleno's eight-year old daughter Katie Hodge sat quietly in the front row and drawing pencil-sketches of her family in a notebook. She pointed out the picture of the Montgomery County Democrat smiling and another of her "other daddy," Mark Hodge.
Several senators said their comfort with Madaleno's family, who frequently visit the statehouse, led them to support same-sex marriage.
The news conference felt like a reunion of sorts for a group of progressive lawmakers who rode an emotional rollercoaster though the last session. Del. Luke Clippenger, one of seven openly gay House members, said he could hardly contain his excitement. Adjectives he used included: "Exuberant," "happy" and "joyful."
Peter C. Fosselman, Maryland's deputy secretary of state, attended with Duane Rollins, his partner of 16 years. Fosselman said that he's known the governor for about six years and speaks to him frequently about legal projections for gay couples.
Fosselman once supported civil unions.
"I was for anything that provided legal protections," he said.
Like O'Malley, he decided only recently that gay marriage was a better approach.
He says he changed his mind after watching other states and concluding that civil unions are discriminatory because they create a separate and unequal system for gay people.
Fosselman waited patiently next to a lectern to speak with O'Malley after the event.
The reason, he said: "I want to shake his hand."