By MAGGIE CLARK
ANNAPOLIS (January 25, 2011) More than 20 legislators and dozens of advocates announced the filing of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act Tuesday in what many believe is the best political climate ever for getting Maryland to join five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage.
The bill would redefine marriage from "between a man and woman" to "between two individuals." It would not require religious officials to perform same-sex marriages if it contradicts their beliefs.
The bill has 18 sponsors in the Senate and 17 sponsors in the House, and the support of the governor, who has previously said he would sign marriage equality legislation. Still, even if the bill passes, it's likely that opponents would get the necessary 53,650 signatures required to put the issue to a voter referendum, which so far has proved to be the kiss of death for marriage equality in other states.
However, a new poll released by Gonzales Research and Marketing shows that 51 percent of Maryland voters support full marriage rights for same-sex couples, including full legal rights and the same tax exemptions, inheritance and pension coverage as heterosexual couples.
In the same poll, 44 percent of respondents opposed marriage rights and 5 percent did not respond.
These new poll numbers offer a ray of hope for advocates of marriage equality in Maryland. Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, a sponsor and one of the four openly gay members of the General Assembly, said he is hopeful that if the bill goes to voters in a referendum, it will pass.
"Polling data is all trending in our favor ... I think you see a lot of people, especially on the Democratic side, trending our way if they're not already there," Madaleno said.
"We've been making the case for a long time and I think people are finally catching on to this, saying 'I understand this is an issue of fairness and equality for same-gender couples,'" Madaleno said.
Tim Magrath, a lecturer in political science at Frostburg State University and a former congressional staffer, agrees that the national attitude toward same-sex marriage is changing.
"The polling data's been incredible, the numbers have completely turned around," said Magrath. "In the '90s when (President) Clinton first started talking about gays in the military, the approval rating was in the 30s, but now a vast majority of people support the idea of gays in the military."
"Public perception on marriage has been transformed in the last decade as well, and there's been a major transformation in public opinion," said Magrath.
Despite the turn of public opinion, Magrath is skeptical that a majority of voters would come out in favor of same-sex marriage.
"Generally, public officials are more flexible or willing to see all sides on an issue, and the electorate generally is not," said Magrath.
"I think there would be a major push from the Republicans to get it (same-sex marriage) on the ballot because it would increase voter turnout among conservatives ... This is an issue that resonates with many people, especially in western Maryland," Magrath said.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert, who has been an opponent of same-sex marriage in Maryland, thinks voters will demand a referendum on the issue.
"The citizens would have to decide if they want to change the definition of marriage. People in California thought that it (same-sex marriage) would pass in a referendum but look what happened there," O'Donnell said.
Supporters, including Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, are prepared to campaign for their cause if indeed the measure does go to a ballot initiative.
"I think in Maryland, we have, very clear support for this issue ... If it goes to the ballot, we are prepared to fight the battle and win the battle, as a matter of fact," McIntosh said.