A step closer to equal rights

In the march toward equal rights for gay men and lesbians in Maryland, small things can make a big difference.

A couple of Republican state senators were replaced by Democrats, giving the majority party an extra seat in a key committee. One socially conservative Democrat asked to be reassigned, and suddenly a 6-5 split against same-sex marriage in the Judicial Proceedings Committee looks like it could turn into a 6-5 vote in favor of it.

A Senate president remembers a traumatic debate over abortion nearly 20 years ago and vows that, although he personally opposes gay marriage, he will work to end any filibuster on the issue. The House of Delegates, more liberal than the Senate, has probably had the votes to legalize gay marriage for a long time, but no one wanted to press the issue if it would just die in a Senate committee.

And a governor who had long seen civil unions as the way forward now says he will sign a marriage equality bill if it reaches his desk.

That's a lot of chickens to count before they hatch, but the path toward legalizing gay marriage here looks clearer than ever — not because of any extraordinary event, or landmark court case, or massive protest march, but because one by one, Marylanders have grown comfortable with the idea that homosexuality is no reason to deny someone's fundamental rights.

Repealing Maryland's existing law limiting marriage to unions between a man and a woman would not be the last step in cementing equality. Opponents would certainly try to petition the law to a referendum, but it's altogether uncertain whether they could succeed. Petition drives have brought local laws to referendum in recent years — notably, the zoning for a slots parlor in Anne Arundel County this year and a condemnation-for-revitalization plan in Baltimore County a decade ago — but the hurdle for a statewide act is high. Such a petition would need a number of signatures equivalent to 3 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election, which amounts to 55,737. The last time such an effort was successful — a vote on a law that affirmed the legality of abortion in Maryland — was in 1992.

If opponents did get the signatures, all bets would be off. It would go on the ballot in a presidential election year. Would Republicans, energized to defeat President Barack Obama, come to the polls in record numbers — and vote against gay marriage while they were at it? Would young voters and liberals, turned out by the Obama machine, have the opposite effect? Would African-Americans, who are generally less inclined to support gay marriage, make the difference here as they may have in California two years ago? There's no way to know.

This small shift in one Senate committee may be the crucial change that brings gay marriage to Maryland, or it may just be a footnote in a much longer story. But one thing is clear: It is not a fluke. Every day that passes brings broader acceptance of the idea of same-sex marriage. It may come next year, or it may take longer, but it will come.

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