Md.'s top leaders cross Catholic hierarchy on gay marriage

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley regularly attends a weekday Mass and has sent his four children to Catholic schools.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) used to teach and coach at his old Catholic high school in Annapolis.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) grew up serving as an altar boy in the idyllic wood-frame Catholic church his family helped build in Clinton.

But the presence of three Catholics at the helm in Annapolis hasn't stopped a same-sex marriage bill from wending its way through the legislature, triggering deep disappointment among church leaders as it suggests a waning of Catholic influence in this heavily Catholic state.

The legislation won final passage Thursday night in the Senate on a 25 to 21 vote, setting the stage for debate starting Friday in the House of Delegates, traditionally the more liberal chamber on social policy. Supporters there say they remain a couple of votes shy of a majority but were optimistic that they would pick up the backing.

O'Malley (D) has pledged to sign the bill if it reaches his desk. Busch has said he will vote for it in the House. And although Miller voted against the bill in the Senate on Thursday, he had moved to head off a filibuster attempt by opponents so that it could move forward.

Maryland, which emerged as a beacon for Catholics during its Colonial days, would join five other states and the District in allowing same-sex couples to marry.

In a recent interview, O'Malley said his Catholic beliefs serve as the underpinning for much of what he does in public life.

But, he said, "the vocation I've chosen for these last several years has been a vocation that requires one to be of service to others in an arena of compromise. It is a different vocation than the vocation that a bishop or a cardinal chooses to fulfill, and rightfully so."

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, said she has been distressed by the debate and the governor's decision.

"It's always troubling when someone in such a public position openly disagrees with the church," she said, calling defeat of the legislation "a critically important issue for the church."

A few hundred Catholic priests and laity lobbied lawmakers Monday night on same-sex marriage and other issues as part of an annual event organized by the Maryland Catholic Conference.

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