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

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 10:39 PM

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.

Maryland arguably wouldn't be the most Catholic state to allow gay nuptials.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire all have a higher percentage of Catholics than Maryland, which has 27 percent, according to a 2008 national survey. A similar percentage of Maryland legislators are Catholics.

During the debate Thursday, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) said the bill would provide gay couples the same rights he and his wife have enjoyed since their marriage in a Catholic church 14 years ago.

"It's an historic day for equal justice under the law," he said.

Several of his colleagues countered that marriage should be reserved for couples who can fit their definition of "procreation" and urged the Senate not to broaden the bounds of traditional marriage.

Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) read from a bulletin distributed in churches by the Maryland Catholic Conference recently that referred to "the unique union of one man and one woman."

Beyond the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Maryland, there is another potent religious force in the state opposed to same-sex marriage: African American churches.

Some of the most vocal opponents in Thursday's Senate debate were raised in Maryland's black churches.

"Here's my question: Where does it stop?" asked Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), who is senior pastor of the Ark of Safety Christian Church of Upper Marlboro. He questioned whether polygamy would one day be acceptable.

Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) said she grew up watching her father officiate over weddings and came to believe that such unions should be reserved for people who can have children.

"Two people of the same sex cannot produce children," she said.

With attention turning to the House, supporters there acknowledged Thursday that same-sex marriage has been a hard sell with African American lawmakers from Prince George's County, as well as conservative Democrats from Southern Maryland and the Baltimore suburbs.

In an interview this week, Busch said he will support the bill as a matter of civil rights, even though he prefers civil unions for gay couples.

Busch, 64, said he has reservations about the term "marriage" but has not been swayed by Catholic officials' arguments that it should be reserved for people with the potential for procreation. He said he does not fear any retribution from the church.

"I believe God wants me to make just and right decisions," Busch said.

After his family bounced between Maryland and Virginia, Busch spent his final years of high school at St. Mary's, a Catholic school in Annapolis serving mostly blue-collar families at the time.

Busch credits the nuns there with putting him on the right path and instilling "a value system of honesty, integrity, hard work and discipline." He returned to St. Mary's for much of the 1970s as a history teacher and football coach.

Busch said he considers himself Catholic, adding that "one day I hope they're going to bury me a Catholic." He would not say how often he attends church, offering only that "I'm not a guy who makes every Sunday."

Busch said he largely agrees with the church on issues such as supporting the poor and expanding access to health care. He has parted ways on others, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research funding, which Maryland lawmakers approved in 2006.

"I don't think I'm unlike a lot of other members of the Catholic religion," Busch said.

In wrestling with the same-sex marriage issue, he said he has asked himself how he would respond if one of his daughters told him she was a lesbian. "Do you love them any less? You love them the same. You want the best for them."

Masses were said in Latin when Miller, the oldest of 10 children, was an altar boy at St. John's Church in Clinton. He said that his father was "a very conservative Catholic" and that his mother converted to Catholicism from the Methodist Church.

Despite their Catholicism, Miller points to his parents to explain one of his first high-profile breaks with the church during his 25-year tenure as Senate president.

In the early 1990s, Miller, a gregarious lawyer, presided over two grueling years of debate over abortion, siding with those who wanted to put protections for women into Maryland law in the event Roe v. Wade was repealed.

Miller said his mother told him that "it was a women's issue and that I needed to support the women."

Miller has since been a strong advocate on some issues affecting the Catholic Church, including a proposed tax credit to help bolster its schools. But he said he's "not a very good Catholic" despite regular attendance at churches in his district.

"I think we should have women for priests," he said. "I think there should be contraception to stop the spread of AIDs in Africa. I support capital punishment, and I'm pro-choice in the early stages of pregnancy."

In discussing his opposition to same-sex marriage, Miller, 68, pointed to the strong values of his family, which hadn't had a single divorce until his generation.

"It's not really a Catholic thing," he said. "I have a hard time associating family values with people of the same sex being married. What is the next definition of marriage going to be? At some point, you have to draw the line."

Miller said he thinks same-sex marriage could be rejected by Maryland voters.

The state allows residents to petition that just-passed laws be placed on the ballot if they collect enough signatures. If this happened, the marriage law would appear on the November 2012 ballot.

O'Malley grew up in a Catholic family in Montgomery County, attending Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda and Gonzaga College High School in the District, a Jesuit school. He later went to Catholic University in the District.

The governor listed a variety of issues for which his Catholic faith provides an underpinning. Among them: opposition to the death penalty, raising the minimum wage, holding down the cost of college tuition, supporting the right of workers to organize and cleaning up the environment.

O'Malley, 48, said he has come to view gay nuptials as a matter of "equal protection under the law." It is one of several issues in which he is not "in sync" with the Catholic hierarchy.

"Their job is to guard the tenets of the faith, and, you know, it's understandable that the church, for that reason, that they're slow to change," he said.

O'Malley said he settled on civil unions several years ago, when he was mayor of Baltimore, as a reasonable compromise between freedom of religion and equal rights sought by gay couples. It is a compromise that has since been rejected by leading gay-rights advocates in Maryland, who see civil unions as second-class treatment.

"The debate seems to have evolved more quickly than many might have foreseen," the governor said. "I'd be willing to sign any law that reaches me as long as it protects rights equally. I'm not going to get hung up on the words used to describe equal protection under the law."

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