With a fiery debate that invoked God and civil rights, supporters and opponents of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions in Maryland squared off yesterday in what has become one of the most politicized issues of the General Assembly session.
Proponents of the bill, including religious leaders and conservative organizations, argued that it would allow Marylanders to vote on what some called the most important issue of a generation. Those opposed, including civil rights advocates, other clergy and constitutional law professors, warned a House of Delegates committee that the measure would codify discrimination.
Robert P. Duckworth, the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court clerk, told the panel that if the legislature did not act to allow a constitutional amendment, it would open the door to polygamy and marriage between siblings, eliciting cheers from many in the audience who wore red, white and blue "Let Us Vote" ribbons.
"If same-sex marriage becomes law in Maryland, I will refuse to perform such ceremonies," said Duckworth, a Republican, during the more than five-hour hearing before an often-raucous crowd. "Marylanders deserve this constitutional amendment on this ballot. The only way to protect the institution of marriage is though such an amendment."
The Rev. John Crestwell of Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Camp Springs, who is opposed to the amendment, accused the measure's supporters of turning the argument into a populist movement to impose religion on the Constitution.
"I read somewhere of the separation between church and state," Crestwell said. "The two can never become one. When you mix the word of God with partisan zeal, it's disastrous and that's what's going on here."
The issue of same-sex unions was propelled into the political fray two weeks ago when a Baltimore circuit judge ruled that Maryland's law defining marriage between a man and a woman was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Judge M. Brooke Murdock stayed her ruling pending an appeal, which was immediately filed by the state attorney general's office.
The ruling sparked immediate friction between lawmakers, with perennial opponents of same-sex marriage - mainly Republicans - vowing to bring a debate on a constitutional amendment to the House floor. Many Democrats, meanwhile, are urging fellow lawmakers to delay legislative action until an appeals court rules.
Both sides have an eye on the November elections. If a constitutional amendment appears on the fall ballot, conservative voters who tend to favor Republican candidates could be motivated to go to the polls in greater numbers, political experts say, providing a potential boost to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking re-election. But other observers believe that left-leaning voters could be similarly motivated to protect what they view as civil liberties, weakening the GOP advantage.
Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican who said at the hearing that gay men and lesbians can change their sexual orientation, sponsored the bill that would place a proposed amendment on the fall ballot. He said he will try to force a vote on the House floor even if the Judiciary Committee rejects the measure. Committee members said they are likely to vote on the measure tomorrow.
"Unfortunately for me, the Democrats are using every maneuver to keep this off the floor and away from the ballot," Dwyer said.
The tactics Dwyer and other Republicans are contemplating are rare and contentious - and could dominate House debate this week.
Kathryn M. Rowe, an assistant attorney general who advises the General Assembly, said House rules contain a procedure that allows a bill rejected by a committee to be brought to the floor for full consideration with a majority vote of the chamber.
But she said House speakers have stopped using the tactic in recent years. Del. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic whip from Prince George's County, said the approach makes House business less efficient.
"It is an extraordinary measure that, if abused, renders the House less effective in conducting its business," he said.
Still, Ehrlich endorsed the tactical maneuver on Monday, when he issued a statement urging lawmakers to debate the proposed amendment on the floor, a departure from his remarks two weeks earlier in which he stated that he preferred to wait for an appeal's court to rule before taking a position on a constitutional amendment.
With rumors swirling yesterday that the Democrat-controlled House committee was considering voting on the amendment late last night - killing it after advocates on both sides went home - Ehrlich said he issued the statement because he didn't want public discussion to be cut off.
"This is an issue of overwhelming public importance," he said.
Added Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the Republican whip from Southern Maryland: "We don't want this thing voted on in the dark of night."
Meanwhile, some Democrats are mapping out numerous strategies for defeating the measure, with some vowing to kill the bill in committee.
"This bill will not pass this committee," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat. "It hurts me that people would want to discriminate against people just because of who they are. They are using this as an Election Day ploy to get the hard-core conservatives out to vote."
Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, is supporting a bill that could stay the appeals court ruling should it uphold Murdock's decision, saying lawmakers need time to flesh out the issues.
He grilled Dwyer during the hearing, arguing that his bill was so broad that it could nullify measures in some local jurisdictions that offer employees domestic partner benefits. The measure would outlaw same-sex marriage, civil unions - which confer some of the benefits that come with marriage - and other legal relationships between people of the same sex, regardless of name.
In a rare moment of conciliation, Dwyer said that his bill did not intend "to take away any rights already being granted" and that he would welcome an amendment to the bill clarifying that the jurisdictions providing such benefits would not be affected by the proposed constitutional change.
Spectators arrived an hour early for the hearing, with many foes of same-sex marriage claiming seats in the auditorium. Outside, scores of others, many of them opponents of the bill, waited for an opportunity to speak.
The exchange between legislators and the public at times became so intense that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, became curt with speakers and the audience, pleading for decorum.
Carrie Evans, the state legislative director for Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, said other states have halted attempts to ban same-sex unions in their constitutions and urged Maryland lawmakers to follow their lead. Nineteen state legislatures have voted to amend their constitutions to ban same-sex unions; Virginia lawmakers voted last week to put the measure on the ballot this fall.
Some gay rights advocates said they were offended by testimony that they said was rooted in discrimination and bias, while proponents argued that they did not intend to discriminate but rather hope to see citizens vote on an important issue.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a proponent of traditional marriage, said he would like to see the courts decide the issue. But if the Court of Appeals upholds the circuit court's ruling, he is "prepared to bring a bill to the floor one way or another."
"If people don't like what the courts do, then we should give people the opportunity to vote on it," Miller said yesterday.
The issue, he added, isn't going away.
Sun reporters Andrew A. Green, Jennifer Skalka and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.