Maryland is on the cusp of legalizing same-sex marriage

Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:05 PM

A FEW YEARS AGO, there was no prospect that a bill legalizing same-sex marriage could pass the Maryland General Assembly. This year, advocates for the legislation seem to be on the cusp of victory - a victory we hope they achieve - as a small handful of fence-sitting state senators seem to be breaking in favor of granting homosexuals the same legal rights heterosexuals enjoy.

We won't know with certainty for a few days whether Maryland will enact the legislation this year. One key senator with a swing vote - Democrat Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore - says she is praying "real hard" to determine how to vote. But here's something we'd bet on: If state lawmakers don't authorize same-sex marriage this year, they will next year, or the year after that.

Americans, who just 15 years ago opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of about 2.5 to 1, have changed their views with stunning speed. Although a bare plurality continues to express opposition, the opponents skew heavily elderly and less educated, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who favor allowing gays and lesbians to wed has increased sharply. Political independents, who just two years ago were opposed by a considerable margin, are now almost evenly divided. Younger Americans tend to support same-sex marriage, and those under the age of 30 favor it by a large majority.

In Maryland, several formerly undecided lawmakers have listened to the arguments of opponents - and recoiled at the vitriol they heard. State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who previously backed same-sex civil unions but not marriage, changed his mind after taking in what he called the "appalling" views of opponents at a Senate hearing. "Witness after witness demonized homosexuals, vilified the gay community and described gays and lesbians as pedophiles," he said in a statement, adding: "For me, the transition to supporting marriage has not been an easy one. But the uncertainty, fear, and second-class status that gays and lesbians have to put up with is far worse and clearly must come to an end."

Five other states and the District issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A sixth state, New Jersey, grants all spousal rights but calls the arrangement a civil union. Others, including Maryland, recognize same-sex marriage licenses issued in other states. Still other states provide some or nearly all marriage rights and benefits to unmarried couples in domestic partnerships, including homosexuals. Nearly all of this has taken place in the past decade.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said last year that he would sign a gay marriage bill if one reached his desk. In the House of Delegates, proponents think the prospects for passage are strong. What hangs in the balance now is the Senate, where 24 votes are needed to approve the bill in the 47-seat body. At the moment, the head count looks close - but the trend lines do not. Maryland, which so proudly styles itself "the Free State," is clearly moving in the direction of fair treatment and equal rights for all. The only question is how quickly will it get there.

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