Poll finds gains for same-sex marriage in Maryland

By Aaron C. Davis and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; B01

Maryland residents are shifting toward a more positive opinion of same-sex marriage, with registered voters now narrowly supporting a law to allow it, a Washington Post poll has found.

A clear majority of people responding to the poll -- 55 percent -- also say that if gays get married in another state, those unions should be considered legal in Maryland; 38 percent say the state should not recognize them. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) in February told state agencies to begin granting married same-sex couples from elsewhere the same rights as Maryland's heterosexual couples.

The poll, conducted May 3-6, finds that 46 percent overall favor legal same-sex marriage, 44 percent oppose it, and 10 percent have no opinion. Among registered voters, 48 percent are in favor and 43 percent are opposed.

In late 2007, an identical Post poll question found 44 percent in favor overall and 51 percent opposed.

Maryland's move away from a clear majority opposition to same-sex marriage -- and into a nearly equally split electorate -- mirrors national trends. The numbers also suggest that Gansler's position is more closely aligned with public opinion than his opponents' views.

A conservative Anne Arundel County state delegate tried unsuccessfully to impeach Gansler, and a coalition of black pastors and conservative Christians repeatedly traveled to Annapolis this spring to hold rallies in hopes of pressuring lawmakers to pass bills that would have rolled back the attorney general's decision.

Gansler, who is Maryland's only statewide elected official to endorse same-sex marriage, said Monday that the evolution of public opinion on same-sex marriage is progress.

"More and more people know gay people and realize they are working people, that they do their jobs and conduct their lives like everybody else," Gansler said.

"Attitudes are changing, and they are changing rapidly because there is a recognition that it is unfair, legally and morally, to prohibit people from the pursuit of happiness," he added. "Twenty years from now we'll look back and think this was a quaint discussion -- every state will have gone this way."

But Del. Emmett C. Burns (D), a Baltimore County pastor and an opponent of same-sex marriage, said the poll results do not show a change in public opinion. He said the numbers instead reflect that Marylanders are being pressured to accept same-sex marriage.

"The public is not changing -- politicians are changing," Burns said. "They get elected and push the gay-lesbian agenda. They are ruthless in aggressively fashioning it as a form of discrimination, and that's simply not accurate."

The shift in the poll numbers was driven by increasing support among the state's Democrats and independents, who make up nearly three-quarters of the population. Republicans, however, have moved in the other direction. Their support has dropped from 36 percent to 25 percent, with 69 percent opposed.

The poll shows a notable dip in opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage among African Americans since the last Post poll. Blacks in Maryland are now nearly equally divided over the issue. In the District, where black clergy have been among the most vociferous critics of a measure that took effect this year allowing gays to marry, a slight majority of blacks oppose same-sex marriage, another Post poll has found.

Although the new poll seemed to reflect a turning point, lawmakers and political observers were split on the question of how quickly the change would result in a different outcome for proposals to legalize same-sex marriage.

This year, there were enough votes on the House Judiciary Committee to send the question to the floor for a vote, but the committee chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George's), did not bring the measure up for a vote. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) does not support it. He favors civil unions and considers marriage the purview of the church. In the Senate, led by longtime President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), lawmakers are traditionally more socially conservative than in the House.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Montgomery), one of the General Assembly's few openly gay lawmakers, said he was hopeful nonetheless that a same-sex marriage bill would receive more consideration next year.

"One of the reasons we have not come to agreement is there really hasn't been consensus within our state as to what direction we should go. I think you are now seeing a consensus develop," he said.

Even if a bill clears the legislature, it still might have trouble at the governor's desk -- no matter who wins the seat in November.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) went along with Gansler's legal opinion to direct state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages from elsewhere, but he has consistently stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage.

Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R), O'Malley's likely opponent in the November election, wrote an opinion piece in February charging that Gansler's decision flew in the face of state precedent not to recognize same-sex marriage and said he considers marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company