O'Malley seeks religious support for same-sex marriage bill

It is highly unlikely that there will be a gay wedding at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George's County, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. But its pastor, the Rev. Delman Coates, went to Annapolis on Tuesday to support Gov. Martin O'Malley's same-sex marriage bill.

Coates said he feels comfortable that the legislation would not force his church to do something against its beliefs, and he thinks that gay marriages can co-exist with traditional ones. "I think everyone is protected here," he said. "You don't have to agree with same-sex marriage as a matter of personal religious choice."

The minister's reaction is exactly what O'Malley and advocates for legalizing same-sex marriage are looking for as they begin their push in the Maryland General Assembly. The governor's top aides re-wrote a bill that failed last year so it would have a greater focus on religious protections. They are hoping the new language will blunt opposition to the bill from some religious groups and bring wavering delegates to their side.

But many critics — including representatives of the Roman Catholic Church — said they remain staunchly opposed. Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said she cannot support the measure because of "the impact such a drastic change would have on all society." She added: "No changes to the bill can change that fundamental fact."

Another opponent, Republican Del. Don Dwyer of Anne Arundel County, said he's going to work "every hour of every day" to defeat the same-sex marriage bill. "It is my only legislative agenda. Period," he said.

It was too early to know Tuesday whether any lawmakers were persuaded by O'Malley's changes; several who are on the fence said they needed more time to study the legislation. Last year a same-sex marriage bill passed in the state Senate but was pulled from the House of Delegates when leaders realized they did not have the 71 votes needed for passage.

O'Malley invited faith leaders, gay couples and union supporters to a breakfast Tuesday at Government House, the governor's residence. Afterward about 40 supporters stood with him on the front steps of the mansion to show their support for the legislation.

"Other states have found a way to do this," O'Malley said at the event. "We can find a way to do this, too."

O'Malley's legislation was introduced Monday night in the state Senate with 20 co-sponsors, including Howard County's Sen. Allan Kittleman, the only GOP legislator to support the bill. A House version has not been introduced, though advocates were passing it around and gathering co-sponsors Tuesday.

O'Malley's proposal borrows language and ideas from similar laws in New Hampshire, New York and Washington, D.C., to attempt to make clear that religious institutions would have some protections without rolling back the state's anti-discrimination laws.

In New York, where a same-sex marriage bill passed last year, amending the legislation to add religious protections was key for some lawmakers who were hesitant about supporting the bill. Six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. In Washington state this week advocates announced they have the votes to pass gay marriage there as well.

Maryland's new bill — called the Civil Marriage Protection Act — includes four changes from last year: It is now stated that religious leaders, as well as their institutions, are protected from lawsuits; that the state can't withhold funds to penalize a religious institution that does not recognize same-sex marriages; and that the state can't dictate religious doctrine. There also is an attempt to clarify that some programs run by religious institutions can exclude same-sex couples.

"The exemptions are more explicit this year," O'Malley said. "They may be more explicit in this bill than they have been in any other bill around the country."

Supporters offered this example of how the legislation would apply: If a church ran a homeless shelter that also offered marriage counseling, the shelter could not refuse to house a gay couple — but it could refuse to provide the counseling.

Del. John A. Olszewski, Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he wanted more time to discuss the measure with staff from the Maryland attorney general's office before declaring his position.

"I'm looking at it," Olszewski said. He thought last year's bill did not have strong enough religious protections. "I think this bill goes a long way in addressing those concerns," he said.

But some religious leaders said they remained worried that legalizing same-sex marriage could force them to recognize the unions in more subtle ways.

For example, would the bill require a faith-based school to provide benefits to the same-sex spouse of a teacher? Would state-licensed marriage counselors working for religious institutions be required to meet with same-sex couples?

Bryce, said that in both cases the new bill would favor the religious institutions. A gay teacher could be fired. A counselor would not face state retribution if working for a church.

If the legislation does pass in the General Assembly, most believe that it will be petitioned to referendum and Maryland voters will have the last word. A recent poll shows the state is split evenly on the topic.

That means House passage — far from a sure bet — would set up a statewide battle on the issue, a point O'Malley made Tuesday.

"This issue will go to the people in referendum," he said. "And, in fact, there are some issues that can only be resolved when people come together and give it some thought."