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A step for equality

The House of Delegates' vote Friday night in favor of the Civil Marriage Protection Act was a tremendous step forward for equality and justice and for the rights of Maryland families. For many of the 72 delegates who supported same-sex marriage, the vote was a courageous one, coming in the face of promised retribution at the ballot box and, in at least one case, threats of physical violence. It followed two hours of passionate but civil debate and was the culmination of months of preparation by advocates on both sides of the issue. For those who believe in the transcendent right of equal protection under the law, it was a moment of well deserved celebration.

But, as many opponents of the bill noted in speeches that amounted to a tactical retreat, this debate is far from over. As uncertain as the prospects for this legislation were even in the moments before Friday's vote, its ultimate fate hinges now on a process that is even less certain. Advocates spent the last 11 months working to win a handful of undecided delegates. Now it looks like they will have less than nine months to win over hundreds of thousands of Maryland voters.

The immediate next step is for the state Senate to take up the House bill. Because the Senate approved a substantially similar bill last year, the assumption is that it will do so again. A majority of senators are already on record supporting marriage equality. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, though personally opposed to gay marriage, has signaled a desire for his chamber to move this legislation through with as little drama as possible so that it may continue on with the many other weighty topics on the General Assembly's to-do list this year. That will pose a real test to his legendary control of his chamber; given the stakes, nothing can be taken for granted.

Nonetheless, most opponents of same-sex marriage appear to be looking beyond the Senate vote and Gov.Martin O'Malley's promised signature to a petition drive and referendum campaign. Opponents of granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants proved last year that with the help of the Internet, Maryland's daunting process for forcing a public vote on an act of the General Assembly is surmountable. There is little doubt that this legislation, if enacted, will be on the ballot in November.

What happens then is anyone's guess. Polls consistently show an even split in public opinion on the issue, though it is quite possible that the combination of the presidential election and the immigrant tuition referendum will drive turnout to the advantage of gay marriage foes. (The tuition referendum has stoked more passion among its conservative foes than its liberal backers, and President Barack Obama's presence on the ballot is likely to drive up turnout among African-Americans, who, according to polls, are less inclined than white voters to support gay marriage.) Moreover, gay marriage has never yet succeeded in the dozens of times it has been on statewide ballots across the country.

But the course of the debate in the House of Delegates shows that advocates for marriage equality can prevail in Maryland. Those who changed their minds and voted to support the legislation offered a number of explanations on practical, legal and philosophical grounds. But perhaps the most moving was the one provided by Del. A. Wade Kach, a Republican from northern Baltimore County who voted against the measure in committee but announced a few days later that he had changed his mind.

He said he found himself moved by the experience of listening to the testimony of same-sex couples and their families, and of watching them as they pleaded their case before legislators during a committee hearing. What he observed was simple and unmistakable: love. He heard it in the witnesses' voices, and he saw it in their small, unconscious gestures of affection. He saw the love of two people who have dedicated their lives to one another, and more crucially, he saw the love of parents for their children. Mr. Kach said he is a pro-life legislator, and for him, that means making sure all children are taken care of: "I hope all of you that especially care about children will think of them and hopefully as a state all our children are going to have the same rights."

It will be a tall order to replicate that experience a million times over. But for thousands of families seeking nothing more than the recognition most of us take for granted, it's worth the effort.

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun