On the brink of gay marriage in Maryland

Two more state senators — Edward J. Kasemeyer of Howard County and Katherine Klausmeier of Baltimore County — announced this week that they will support same-sex marriage legislation, and Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County said last week that he had switched from opposing the measure to supporting it. Those three Democrats bring the total of announced supporters of the bill up to 23, just one shy of the 24 necessary for passage.

Many steps are still needed before marriage equality is a reality in Maryland, but the development is nonetheless remarkable and a testament to how quickly public attitudes about gay marriage are changing. One of the major reasons for that has been the courage of thousands of gay Marylanders to defy social stigma and live openly as they are, an act that has forced lawmakers and society as a whole to acknowledge that they are normal, upstanding citizens, just the same as anyone else, and deserve all the same rights and privileges.

Senator Klausmeier, for example, has said that she grew up with a traditional religious background but that as she has become friends with more and more gay people, her views changed. Senator Brochin, who had previously backed civil unions but not same-sex marriage, was actually swayed by the testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week. Confronted with the contrast between the alarmist rhetoric of same-sex marriage opponents and the reality of healthy, stable families asking for nothing more than equal rights, he changed his mind.

Gay rights advocates also appear wise to have set their sights on true marriage equality rather than the half-measure of civil unions. Sen. Allan Kittleman, so far the only Republican supporting the bill, initially pushed civil union legislation but found no support for it among either the proponents or opponents of gay marriage; it was too much for one side and not enough for the other. Forced, then, to choose between perpetuating a system in which a group is treated by state law as second-class citizens or taking a stand for civil rights, he chose the latter.

That leaves four senators who remain undecided or who have not said how they will vote: John Astle of Anne Arundel County; Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore City; and Ulysses Currie and James Rosapepe of Prince George's County. All four are Democrats. Much of the attention has focused on Ms. Conway, who earlier told The Sun's Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz that she would not vote for the bill if it looked like it was going to fail but that if there were 23 votes on the board, she would "pray really hard" and make her decision. That, essentially, is the position we find ourselves in now. But she is hardly the only one of the remaining four holdouts who may vote for the legislation in the end; Mr. Rosapepe, for example, represents a district that includes liberal College Park.

In an ideal world, calculations about the next election would play no role in a vote affirming basic civil rights. But there is no doubt that such considerations are a part of the senators' thinking. The trouble is, it's hard to know what the immediate electoral consequences of this vote will be. The most recent public polling puts support for gay marriage at just over a majority in this state, although that may not be the case in the moderate to conservative districts most of the swing senators represent. But it is worth noting that Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, an outspoken proponent of legalizing same-sex marriage, has suffered no political consequences for his stance whatsoever. He didn't generate opposition in either the primary or general elections last year. This legislation may look controversial now, as civil rights bills did in the 1960s. Within a few years, it won't.

As the remaining senators decide what to do, they need to take a much longer view than one centered on the next election. During rallies and hearings this year — and in the everyday presence of Sen. Rich Madaleno, his same-sex partner and their children — they have seen that gay families are just as loving, caring and deserving as any other. The question before them is whether the state should recognize that fact or continue to deny it. The undecided senators need to ask themselves: When they look back many years from now, which vote will they regret?

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