Gay marriage opponents slow to fight in Annapolis

Senate passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was accompanied by an intense lobbying effort: Supporters rallied in Annapolis. Adoring couples spoke at news conferences. Lawmakers received carnations on Valentine's Day.

But the battle over the legislation has been one-sided, with opponents much less visible in the state capital. Though debates are simmering in churches and barbershops around Maryland, those who want to preserve traditional marriage are just beginning to show a coordinated resistance.

"The legislative opposition is very minimal," said Del. Don Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican who has fought gay marriage for nearly a decade.

Opponents of the measure have lacked the costly lobbying and media campaigns developed for legislative fights in New York and Rhode Island. They also acknowledge being caught off-guard by the speed with which the gay marriage bill, officially called the Civil Marriage Protection Act, moved from a lost cause in Annapolis to the most talked-about issue of the General Assembly session.

The bill never even received a vote before this year.

"We have a tendency to play defense," said John Smith of the First Baptist Church in Essex. He's been gearing up to oppose the issue over the past two weeks, and described his congregation as engaged and interested. "We haven't been looking for a fight. It just showed up on our doorstep."

Smith also heads the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, which has more than 500 member churches in this state. He said the organization will use "all avenues" to preserve traditional marriage.

The fight could become more public — and more emotionally charged — as it shifts to the House of Delegates. Bill sponsors in that chamber acknowledge that they are a handful of votes shy of securing the 71 needed for approval. But if the House accepts the bill, Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign it, and opponents say they'll petition it to referendum.

On Friday, opponents of the measure held a pair of news conferences in Annapolis, their first since the bill was introduced last month. "This is not over," said the Rev. Derek McCoy, leader of a political action committee called Maryland Citizen's Clergy. "We will be engaged in the House [of Delegates]."

McCoy noted that religious groups met one-on-one with lawmakers during the Senate fight which concluded last week, and organized e-mails and phone calls. "We really trusted the process," McCoy said.

He was "disappointed" some senators didn't listen to their constituents and promised more public engagement in the next phase.

No lobbyist

One handicap to the opposition effort is that it lacks a paid lobbyist focused exclusively on the issue.

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said she put feelers out to several Annapolis lobbying firms but was turned down. Firms told her that their other clients might not want to be associated with the controversial nature of the bill.

It hurt her efforts. "Every lobbyist presents a new relationship and a new connection," she said.

The Maryland Catholic Conference pushes an assortment of bills, and has previously hired the lobbying firm Schwartz, Metz & Wise for specific fights.

Pam Kasemeyer, a principal with the firm, is married to Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, who voted for the same-sex marriage bill. Lobbyists with the firm declined to comment.

Sean Malone, with another leading Annapolis lobbying group, said his firm declined to represent a group opposing same-sex marriage but would not name the organization.

"We see this as a civil rights issue," Malone said. "We could not see a compelling argument to make for it. It was not a fight we wanted."

On the other side, the gay-advocacy group Equality Maryland hired the Annapolis firm Alexander & Cleaver to lobby lawmakers. Their team has had a steady presence at hearings, news conferences and voting sessions, coordinating a multifaceted effort to apply pressure and produce votes.

Russell also said the church lost influence in the debate because it is prohibited from donating to political campaigns because of its tax-exempt status. The "apparent imbalance" in efforts, she said, can be explained by the proponents putting "an enormous amount of money" into key campaigns last year.

Equality Maryland spent about $54,000 on state political campaigns in 2010, according to campaign finance reports.

Though passage in the House is far from assured, opponents seem to be looking at the next horizon: collecting the 55,376 signatures needed to petition the law to referendum. At the opponents' news conference Friday, activists chanted "Let the people vote."

Dwyer is gearing up for a shock-and-awe House debate — he says he has been sharing with colleagues a pamphlet that includes explicit descriptions of sex acts. Such pamphlets, he says, have been passed out to children in Massachusetts where same-sex marriage is legal.

"I'm taking the gloves off, and we are going to talk about it all," he said in an interview last week.

Dwyer acknowledges that his strident tactics might turn off some of the wavering lawmakers, but said his goal is to appeal to the wider audience. "The public needs to know what is going on," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, another opponent of the gay marriage bill, said during the Senate debate that her focus is the referendum. "That is what we invested our time in," she told her colleagues while mounting a half-hearted attempt at a filibuster. "You will see it again. You will see it at the ballot box."

The battle elsewhere

The strategy is different in Rhode Island and New York, where national groups put more resources into a legislative battle.

The National Organization for Marriage aired radio spots this year attacking newly elected Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island for "wasting time trying to redefine marriage" instead of focusing on the budget.

Two years ago, when the New York Legislature was considering same-sex marriage, the group funded 1.4 million robocalls and poured $100,000 into radio and television ads in key legislative districts.

Maggie Gallagher, the founder and chairman of NOM, said its absence from the Maryland airwaves was a financial decision: The media market here is prohibitively expensive.

She added that neither New York nor Rhode Island allows laws to be petitioned to referendum, meaning that her group has no choice but to fight in the legislatures in those states. "That has made the battle different here," she said.

The potential for a referendum in Maryland, she said, makes her legislative push tactically harder because wavering lawmakers can vote yes with the knowledge that constituents will have the last say, she said.

Gallagher is optimistic about her chances in a referendum — if it comes to that. In other states, including California, same-sex marriage has failed when put to the voters.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, another opponent, also believes Marylanders would reject same-sex marriage at referendum, in part because the question would share the 2012 ballot with President Barack Obama's re-election.

Miller predicted that Obama's name will motivate two constituencies likely to oppose same-sex marriage: conservatives voting against the president and blacks who supported Obama in record numbers two years ago.

Closer to home

A less formal, but potentially potent lobby effort is afoot in legislators' districts. Bishop Angel Nunez, who heads the Bilingual Christian Church in Baltimore, said he preaches about the problems with same-sex marriage "all the time."

"It isn't that we hate gays and lesbians," he said. "We hate the behavior." He said his church is one of the largest in region for Hispanics and added that he's coordinating his sermons with other pastors in Baltimore.

About a dozen other church leaders in Annapolis agreed, and their efforts were mentioned during the Senate debate. Sen. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat, noted the opposition among the 10,000-plus members of her mega-church when she explained why she did not support same-sex marriage.

In West Baltimore, Lenny Clay, the politically powerful owner of the West Baltimore barbershop Lenny's House of Naturals, gave Del. Melvin Stukes an earful for sponsoring the same-sex marriage bill in the House.

He recalled telling Stukes: "You should burn your Bible, because you are no longer following your book."

Instead Stukes took his name off the bill and will not support it.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/annielinskey

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°