As the General Assembly gears up for a debate on the rights of gay couples, a solid majority of Maryland voters supports some form of legalized same-sex unions, according to a recent Sun poll.
Nineteen percent of likely voters said they support gay marriage, and 39 percent said they back civil unions, meaning that nearly three out of five believe the state should formally recognize same-sex relationships. Maryland law bans same-sex marriage.
Thirty-one percent of those polled said they disagree with granting either form of same-sex unions, but only half of those opponents said a constitutional amendment is needed to ban them. Eleven percent said they were not sure or declined to answer the question.
"This is a state that is much more open-minded to a legal arrangement between two people of the same sex, whether they call it marriage or civil unions," said Steve Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, the polling firm that conducted the survey for The Sun. "It's not a state characterized by a large evangelical constituency but rather a more liberal electorate."
But consensus on same-sex unions in Annapolis might be out of reach this year. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who courted gay voters during his campaign, has said he prefers civil unions, while gay-rights activists are pushing for a marriage bill with an exception to make it clear that no religious institutions or clergy would be compelled to perform or recognize those marriages.
Leaders in the Democratic-controlled State House are also split, with House Speaker Michael E. Busch endorsing civil unions and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opposing both civil unions and same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers advocate a constitutional ban, arguing that such a measure is needed to protect the institution of marriage.
That diversity of opinion was mirrored by respondents to the Sun poll who said in follow-up interviews that their convictions were forged through religious, cultural and personal experience.
Aleshia Williams, 28, a lesbian who lives in Baltimore, said she believes that O'Malley stopped short of embracing gay marriage for political reasons and that the issue should be a matter of civil rights, not religion.
"We should be able to do what we want. We're not hurting anybody by getting married," Williams said. "Why not just let us live our lives? Why do they think they can play God?"
Support for gay marriage is strongest in Baltimore and in the Washington suburbs, according to the poll. Support for gay marriage was highest among voters who are younger than 35, with 37 percent favoring the idea. Just 13 percent of those older than 65 support gay marriage. Whites are more likely to support gay marriage, while blacks are more likely to say that same-sex unions should be illegal.
The statewide poll of 904 voters was conducted by telephone Jan. 6-9. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Religion also played a strong role in voters' attitudes. Seventy percent of those who identified themselves as Jewish supported gay marriage or civil unions, while 10 percent opposed both concepts. Evangelical Christians were most opposed to gay unions, with 45 percent saying the state should not recognize any same-sex relationships. Opposition was equally strong from those who attend religious services of any faith at least weekly.
David Shafer, 63, of Frederick said the debate should be framed in religious as well as moral terms. He advocates a constitutional ban. "Gay marriage is one of the many steps denigrating our society," he said. "I just feel that it's wrong."
A slim minority of poll respondents, about one in six, want to change the state constitution, but that number could increase significantly with a high-profile campaign similar to those launched in other states, Raabe said.
Maryland law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. A lawsuit seeking to overturn that statute failed last year, effectively moving debate over the issue to the State House.
Only Massachusetts allows same-sex marriage. Nine other states, including Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont, offer civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Approval of civil unions, often viewed by voters as a compromise, was spread fairly evenly across racial, age and gender lines, poll results showed.
Curtis Potter, 80, of Columbia favors civil unions as a way to grant gay couples rights conferred in marriage, while respecting religious objections. He said his opinion has been shaped by his childhood on a North Carolina farm, where he saw "a lot of prejudice," and by his experience as a manager in the federal government and of his own business, where he saw "society and co-workers lash out at gay people for being unacceptable."
"It's time for our legislatures on the state and national level to really come up with laws that grant total equality," he said. "But when you think of marriage, right away you think of what God intended and our collective moral compass, and I think we need to abide by that."
Lawmakers said that it is too early to determine whether a consensus will form behind any one proposal. At the same time, some legislators plan to file bills that would confer rights piecemeal to gay couples, such as those concerning property ownership and medical decision-making. Legislators, including Miller, have supported increasing rights for same-sex couples in the past.
"Where we end up in this larger debate remains to be seen, but if we don't ask right off for what we want then we're never going to get it," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, explaining why she and others are seeking gay marriage and not a separate legal institution such as civil unions.
Foes of gay marriage also plan to push their cause this year. Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican and one of the General Assembly's most outspoken critics of gay rights, said it is time for the legislature to vote on all of the proposals so that constituents know where their representatives stand. He plans to sponsor a constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions.
"Win, lose or draw, this debate needs to happen," he said.