By DAVE NYCZEPIR
ANNAPOLIS (February 15, 2012)—Speaking to a room full of law students and professors in Baltimore recently, Gov. Martin O'Malley defended same-sex marriage legislation by arguing that this year's bill balances two of Maryland's founding principles - religious freedom and the freedom of individual conscience.
"There are some things the government does not do well, and one of them is espousing religious beliefs or declaring which religious beliefs are true and which ones are in error," O'Malley said. "But what we have figured out how to do, better than any organized group of people on the planet yet, is how to protect rights equally under the law."
Whether enough members of the General Assembly agree with O'Malley's balancing act will decide if Maryland becomes the latest state in the union to allow same-sex couples to marry. Debate over the legislation is slated to begin Thursday in the House, where it died last session.
O'Malley said the Civil Marriage Protection Act would legalize same-sex marriages but protect churches from overseeing marriages that violate their religious beliefs.
Religious groups, including a number of black ministers and the Catholic Church, pose the strongest resistance, arguing the governor's claim that he's bolstered religious protections within the bill is disingenuous.
"We think the governor did nothing more than restate First Amendment rights already afforded to us in the U.S. Constitution," said the Rev. Derek McCoy, president of the Maryland Family Alliance.
Programs and services receiving state or federal funding are not provided the same protections as churches and could be made to promote gay marriage under this law, McCoy said.
The Maryland Catholic Conference also remains unconvinced - its leadership arguing that talk of including religious protections is intended to distract the public from the church's concern with the bill's impact on society.
The bill does nothing to address its effect on individuals, such as marriage clerks or state counselors, said Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director.
Instead of citing a theological definition of marriage, she views the church's definition as a natural recognition of the fact that no human can exist without the agency of a mother and father.
"There is a deep disagreement between those who recognize the truth about marriage and those who support the redefinition of marriage purely for its other benefits, which can be obtained by other means," Russell said.
The inclusion of religious protections in the bill wasn't necessarily done to appease religious opposition to the bill, said Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Connecticut.
"It's basically there to buy you some votes in the legislature," Silk said. "Those are the things legislators who are queasy about voting for same-sex marriage legislation can go back and tell voters in their district."
And churchgoing voters are more easily convinced by the argument than their clergymen, Silk said.
Still some pastors, like the Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, director of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, have spent the last few years trying to educate the public and eliminate the stigma surrounding marriage equality.
"I think the governor's argument is the right argument," Flournoy said. "We're not asking anyone to change their theology."
Sen. Rich Madaleno, D-Montgomery, the first openly gay member of Maryland's General Assembly, said the argument over marriage equality is falsely presented as a dispute between religion and the secular side of society.
Madaleno, a Unitarian Universalist who attends church service on Sundays, said the law needs to change to reflect the change that has already occurred in society.
The senator believes the essence of civil marriage law is ensuring everyone can pursue their dreams and find love to its full potential.
"I think the role of government should be to say, 'Great, how can we make it last?'" Madaleno said.
The bill's religious opponents would disagree - many questioning the governor's motivations for backing the same-sex marriage bill this session.
McCoy considers O'Malley a lame duck governor trying to further his political aspirations after seeing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo push same-sex marriage through his state's legislature.
The governor has overstepped his bounds by prioritizing the issue over everything else and raising money for the other side, Mccoy said, adding that he believes that jeopardizes the fairness of the debate.
Religious opponents are also none-too-pleased with the fervor with which O'Malley seems to be going after votes in the legislature.
"What is most disturbing about this discussion is despite legislators' argument that this is a vote of conscience, in the end they are imposing incredible political pressure on those legislators who are courageous enough to stand up for what they believe," Russell said.
Last session the governor vowed to sign same-sex marriage legislation if it hit his desk, but did little to actively champion the bill.
He has defended his more active role in ensuring the bill's passage this session as an evolution in his personal understanding of the pace at which public support for same-sex marriage has grown.
Speaking to the Rev. Al Sharpton on "Politics Nation" this month, O'Malley attempted to get at the heart of opposition to same-sex marriage.
"I think the source of all of our division is always fear," O'Malley said. "Fear that somehow other people are going to threaten 'my beliefs', fear that other people may threaten 'my family.'"