Following some three hours of debate -- and with the gallery expecting a vote on the bill itself -- House leadership suddenly called for a voice vote for the bill to be recommitted back to a committee. That motion passed easily. Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch said afterward he expects the body to take up the bill again next year.
It was a huge victory for traditionalists. Just two weeks ago, the bill seemed destined to become law after passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, which most observers thought was going to be the toughest obstacle. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley had pledged to sign it.
The difference apparently was the opposition from predominantly black churches, as well as from the Maryland Catholic Conference. Democrats hold a 98-43 advantage over Republicans in the House, but a third (34) of the Democrats belong to the legislative black caucus. With all but one Republican opposing the bill, the bill needed support from the black caucus to get the 71 votes required for passage. In the two weeks before floor debate, at least two members of the black caucus made public switches from co-sponsoring the bill to opposing it.
"The black churches -- since I've been here -- have never asked us for anything, that I can recall. They are asking now, 'Don't use the word marriage,'" Del. Cheryl Glenn, a member of the black caucus, said during floor debate. She said "my faith tells me" to vote against it.
The opposition from black churches, particularly those in Prince George's County, became so significant that The Washington Post devoted a March 8 story to the issue.
Del. Emmett Burns, a member of the black caucus and an outspoken opponent of the bill, said he was called the "n-word" for his stance. He also said he was offended by comparisons between the civil rights movement and the "gay marriage" movement.
"Show me your Selma, Alabama," he said during debate. "... violates natural law. It always denies a child either a father or a mother. It promotes the homosexual lifestyle. It turns a moral wrong into a civil right. ... children will be taught that the homosexual lifestyle is on par with the heterosexual lifestyle."
A prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Robert Anderson Jr., pastor of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Md., told Baptist Press in February that he, too, found comparisons between civil rights and "gay marriage" offensive.
"We didn't choose to be born black. To be black or African American is not sin," Anderson told Baptist Press. "The fact that we fought for civil rights, we were just fighting for justice for any man, any woman -- regardless of their skin color. ... To try to create a system and special laws for a group of citizens that are living in immorality and wanting to force all of us to embrace that as if it is morally equivalent, that is wrong."
Anderson added, "Jesus still saves. Homosexuality, lesbianism -- you can still be delivered from it. It's sin, and there's an answer to sin."
Even if the bill passes and is signed into law, citizens can gather signatures to try and overturn it at the ballot. The debate in Maryland came as Rhode Island's legislature also considers a "gay marriage" bill.
Equality Maryland, the leading "gay marriage" group in the state, released a statement saying in part, "We are confident we will win in the future."
Seven members of the House are openly homosexual, and most if not all of them spoke during floor debate.
"No church has to recognize us or marry us. You can still teach it's immoral if you so choose to live in a fear-based world," Del. Heather Mizeau, a lesbian, said.
The debate in Maryland had attracted nationwide attention. The National Organization for Marriage -- which helped defeat "gay marriage" laws in California and Maine -- pledge $1 million to support Democratic legislators who voted for the bill. The money would also help defeat Republican legislators who vote for it.
"We want to be sure those courageous Democrats who cast their vote of conscience in favor of marriage will have a strong supporter if the radical gay activists come after them in their next primary election," Brian Brown, president of the organization, said in a statement.
Traditionalists warn the legalization of "gay marriage" would have a widespread negative impact on society, affecting the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses and curriculum in elementary schools.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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