After a day full of partisan maneuvering and impassioned debate, a House of Delegates committee rejected yesterday a bill that would place a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the November ballot.
It was the first clash in what is expected to be a continuing legislative battle over one of the most volatile issues of this year's General Assembly session.
Before the committee rejected the measure, some Democratic lawmakers voted to amend the bill to allow for civil unions, which confer some of the benefits of marriage. Republicans immediately accused Democrats of partisan ploys and inserting a "poison pill" into the measure designed to avoid a debate on the House floor over the politically explosive issue of gay marriage.
In the end, the bill was defeated 22-0. Seven Republicans voted against it because of the added civil-unions provision, and Democrats rejected it because they don't think an amendment is necessary.
Democrats "have basically subverted the process to keep the people of this state from being able to vote on this important issue," said Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican and a co-sponsor of the measure. "The key issue we believe is that the people of this state, not the courts, should decide this issue."
Debate over whether gay men and lesbians should marry re-emerged as a political issue two weeks ago, when a Baltimore Circuit Court judge sided with 19 plaintiffs who claimed that a state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The decision energized foes of gay marriage, who renewed their push for a constitutional amendment.
Republicans argue that an amendment is needed in case an appeals court agrees with the Circuit Court judge. Democrats, mindful that conservative voters could be drawn to the polls in high numbers if such a ballot question appears, say there is no need to change the constitution based on one judge's decision.
Republicans vowed yesterday to continue fighting, possibly using procedural maneuvers to launch debate on the House floor as soon as today.
House rules allow a bill rejected by a committee to be brought to the floor for full consideration with a majority vote of the chamber. Proponents would need 71 votes in the 141-member House to do so; if all 43 Republicans agreed, 28 Democrats would have to join them to begin the debate.
Meanwhile, a similar bill has been filed in the Senate, and McMillan said other House members are considering filing companion bills before a deadline next Friday.
"We will use every parliamentary option we have at our disposal to continue to allow our constituents to have their say," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican. "We are not giving up and are continuing that fight."
Democrats, on the other hand, have been strategizing for ways to avoid a floor vote, asserting that the issue should be left in the courts.
Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said, "It's a very dangerous precedent to change the constitution to restrict the rights of people."
"I've had countless bills put in the drawer, killed by committee, killed by amendment," Zirkin said. "Here Delegate Dwyer thinks this is his bill, and he has decided to make this his cause celebre to bash gays up and down the state of Maryland. It doesn't mean that there is not a process down here that we have to respect. And there is a process in the courts that he also should be respectful of."
Zirkin called a marathon hearing on the bill this week "the lowest moment in my eight years."
"If you were sitting at that hearing and were listening to the types of comments, the absolutely disgusting comments being said about citizens of this state," he said. "Someone has to stand up for the citizens of this state who do not have a voice."
Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican and lead sponsor of the bill, said such an important issue should come before voters. But during the fiery committee meeting, Dwyer asked that his name be removed from the sponsor list, complaining that the amended version was so far from his intent. Three other co-sponsors asked for the same.
During a verbal tussle among legislators, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who introduced the civil unions proposal, said the issue of gay marriage does not belong in a constitutional amendment.
"We have a Circuit Court decision. We have never done a constitutional amendment in this state after a Circuit Court decision," she said, her voice rising in anger. "We wait and go through the process."
Supporters of the bill disagreed and accused Dumais of a ploy to avoid voting on the issue.
"If I were a cynical person, I would think this is the poison pill that kills the whole thing," said Susan K. McComas, a Harford County Republican.
Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, said a constitutional amendment is not needed because the state has a 33-year-old law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and accused supporters of the measure of doing so because it was in their political best interest.
The issue of gay marriage has become politicized as each party eyes the November election. Some political experts say a constitutional amendment would help Republicans, while other observers believe that left-leaning voters could be motivated to the polls as well, to protect what they view as civil liberties.
The committee vote came at the end of a day packed with partisan maneuvering. During yesterday morning's House session, Dwyer said he wanted to present a petition with 47 lawmakers' signatures, invoking another rarely used procedure that would remove the bill from committee and bring it directly to the floor.
But the House session ended abruptly after House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County called for a recess.
The recess left Republicans fuming, with Dwyer complaining that House Speaker Michael E. Busch made an "unprecedented maneuver to kill a bill."
"As soon as the speaker sensed we were going to put this on the floor, he shut this down," Dwyer said. "He may have that authority, but I don't think he has that right."
A copy of the petition was released last night and included the names of four Democratic delegates: Kevin Kelly of Allegany County, Theodore J. Sophocleus and Joan Cadden of Anne Arundel County, and Rosetta C. Parker of Prince George's County.
Busch, meanwhile, accused Dwyer of trying to circumvent the committee process to have his issue heard, violating long-standing House principle.
"It would be disingenuous to the public who attended a hearing to suddenly circumvent the committee's opportunity to vote on a bill," he said. "We have said to everyone from the beginning that we will have a full and open debate."
Afterward, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. scolded House leadership for what he said was an "abuse of the spirit of the rules."
"I firmly believe that the people should vote on this issue," he said, offering his strongest support to date of a constitutional amendment.
Ehrlich complained that the efforts to stop this from going to the floor would prevent voters from having their say on the issue.
"My prediction would be that the people would be denied the right to vote on the most fundamental of issues," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind this will be an issue in the 2006 race."