When the critical vote to approve same-sex marriage in Maryland was coming down, I happened to be in Virginia — not that far geographically, really, but at the moment seemingly a world, and a time, away.

There I was, in a state where legislators were trapped in a womb with no view, considering whether a microscopic, fertilized egg is a person, and whether a woman who wants an abortion must have an ultrasound first.

Meanwhile, my home state was out there in the real world, dealing with a real issue involving actual people and their right to equal protection under the law. To which I can only say: Maryland, my Maryland!

Maybe it's just the phenomenon known by expats the world over: You never quite feel your citizenship as much as you do when you're away from home. But it was hard not to feel a bit of pride in our state, coupled with a bit of horror at our neighbors to the south.

The political backdrop makes the contrast even more interesting, given that both Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell have barely hidden their national ambitions.

We are in a strange place and time in this country, when religious leaders view the so-called public square as extensions of their pulpits, and lawmakers want to bring their religious beliefs to bear on public policy.

Opponents of same-sex marriage will likely succeed in putting the issue to voter referendum for the final word, so the matter is far from settled. Still, at a time when so many votes in Washington are cast along strict party lines, it was heartening to see Maryland elected officials wrestling with their consciences and thinking for themselves.

Delegate A. Wade Kach, for example, had voted against same-sex marriage last year and in committee this year, but was moved by how much "love and dedication" he heard among same-sex couples gathered in Annapolis for hearings on the bill, The Sun's Annie Linskey reported. Kach, a Baltimore County Republican, even tied his pro-life stance to his vote for same-sex marriage, saying that the measure would give the same rights to all children regardless of who their parents are.

That kind of considered thinking, going outside the party box and doing what you think is right for your constituents, is what's so critically missing in today's zero-sum political climate.

I can understand that there are those with real, religion-based objections to gay marriage. But I have yet to see a legitimate argument for why that should determine who does or doesn't get a license to marry from the clerk at the courthouse.

As the sign you sometimes see at marriage equality rallies says, if you're opposed to gay marriage, don't gay marry. That applies to clergy too — no one is forcing anyone to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. Heck, if you get invited to one, you still can cast yourself upon a fainting couch and send your regrets.

But then, for some bizarre reason, there are segments of the faith community who seem unable to practice their religion unless we all practice it along with them. We even have a presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, basically running as Church Lady ("Could it be … Satan?"), getting sick to his stomach over the concept of separation of church and state.

Which brings us to the latest obsession among some lawmakers — mostly male it has to be said — with lady parts. I still can't believe that abortion, which is legal, and contraception, also legal, are taking up so much oxygen these days in Congress and state legislatures.

Virginia legislators, after receiving much outcry and mockery, passed a marginally less appalling version of their ultrasound bill. Rather than requiring women to have invasive, transvaginal ultrasounds before getting an abortion, legislators "only" mandated the external, jelly-on-the-belly kind. (And the zygotes-are-people legislation died a deserved death.)

Still, it was hardly a victory for moderation in Virginia, and merely a continuation of a trend to make women jump through a series of demeaning hoops to have a perfectly legal procedure — a Texas law, for example, requires doctors to play fetal heartbeats for women before abortions.

At a time when the number of abortions are down anyway, it seems strange strategy to exert so much effort trying to further erode access. The only upside to this spectacle, of legislators moralizing and messing with women's private health care decisions, is that now we know who stands where.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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