By Tom McParland

Capital News Service

Gov. Martin O'Malley and supporters of same-sex marriage in front of Government House Tuesday.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and supporters of same-sex marriage in front of Government House Tuesday.

Gov. Martin O’Malley touted increased religious protections as he promoted a new same-sex marriage bill Tuesday that supporters hope can overcome the objections raised last year.

Flanked by lawmakers, religious leaders and union members, the governor repeatedly invoked the values of equal rights and religious freedom, which, he said, the legislation protects.

“Yesterday we submitted a marriage equality bill which balances equal protection of individual rights with the important protection of religious liberty and religious freedom,” O’Malley said, at a press conference in front of Government House, where his family lives. O’Malley hosted same-sex couples at a breakfast before the announcement.

Supporters of same-sex marriage see more explicit language regarding religious exemptions as a key part of their 2012 campaign to win passage and survive a likely referendum in the fall.

Last year’s bill said ministers and churches “may not be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Broader language for religious institutions

The new bill, SB 241, includes broader language that, among other guarantees, ensures that each religious entity “has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine, policy teachings, and beliefs regarding who may marry within that faith.”

The six-page bill uses more words to describe how religious institutions may not be forced to acknowledge than in describing a relatively short list of relatives individuals are not permitted to marry.

“We expanded the language to include provisions from other states that have passed marriage equality with religious exemptions, just to take away any ambiguity about whether or not religious exemption applied in certain circumstances,” said Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, who is openly gay. “It’s just a more wordy way of providing for religious exemption.”

Opponents said the reworked provisions offer no protection to faith communities that oppose same-sex marriage.

“You can’t protect the religious community from same-sex marriage,” said Del. Emmett Burns, Jr., D-Baltimore County, a minister and staunch opponent of the legislation.

Both sides organize for fight

The introduction of the Civil Marriage Protection Act marks the resurfacing of a divisive issue that polarized lawmakers and generated heated debate at the State House last year.

Bill supporters have partnered with Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a wide-reaching coalition that includes labor voices and a range of faith leaders.

Opponents are looking to religious groups such as Progressive Clergy and Laity in Action to pressure delegates who remain on the fence.

“We are targeting black delegates who came to our churches and said how much they loved us and then voted against us,” said Burns, the organization’s founder, who plans to hold rallies in Prince George’s County. “They will be held accountable.”

Other measures, he said, include delivering petitions and holding a “massive rally” in Annapolis on Jan. 30.

While last year’s same-sex marriage bill was assigned only to the House Judiciary Committee, the bill this year will be jointly assigned to the Health and Government Operations Committee.

“I’m getting some people that are calling me to say they don’t support it, and they’re coming from churches, mainly the Catholic Church,” said Del. James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George’s, a bill supporter and member of the Health and Government Operations Committee.

“I listen to everybody, and I’ve been here 20 years. Those who really get wound up on these things are the ones who call. The people who support these things don’t call,” he said.

Churches oppose the bill

Opposition from constituents and religious communities was central to derailing the bill in the House last year.

“With every passing Sunday, where the preachers in some of the conservative districts were working really hard on this issue from the pulpit, we would see our vote count slip each Monday,” Mizeur said.

With the bill expected to pass again in the Senate, supporters say they are looking for four or five new votes in the House, a goal complicated by the strong feelings surrounding the issue.

“Certain issues, you could have great marketing, you could have all these people stand behind it, but people have their own thoughts about it,” said bill co-sponsor Del. Shawn Tarrant, D-Baltimore. “You’re not going to be able to bring up any type of strategy that’s going to swing them one way or the other.”

The bill passed the Senate last year by a 25-21 margin, but stalled in the House when supporters could not garner the 71 votes they needed.

Should the bill become law, it will likely be petitioned to referendum on the November ballot. In other states, voters in referendums have rejected same-sex marriage legislation.

According to a poll released last week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, 49% of Marylanders favor same-sex marriage, while 47% oppose it.

Currently, the District of Columbia, New York and five other states allow same-sex couples to marry.