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Md. delegate torn on gay marriage

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:39 AM

The three voters sitting at a Prince George's County bus stop personified Tiffany Alston's dilemma.

The first was a 70-year-old church lady, shaking her head at the thought of two men marrying each other. "It's just not right. We shouldn't even be talking about such things, let alone voting on them," she tsked.

The second was a 45-year-old mother who understands that same-sex couples getting married isn't what she's used to. "I don't want them doing it because it's a novelty. Marriage is serious, no matter if it's a man and a woman or two women," she told me. "But to each his own. Who am I to judge? Love is hard enough to find in the first place."

And the third was a 19-year-old with iPod buds in his ears. He took them out long enough to scowl at me a bit.

"Why should I care if two men want to get married? So what? Big deal. So do it."

These are the folks Alston, a Democratic state delegate from Mitchellville, is representing when she casts her vote for or against the state's same-sex marriage bill.

And what she's going to do has been the subject of high drama in Annapolis all week.

Alston, 33, is a freshman delegate and one of the sponsors of the bill. When she ran for office, she made it clear that she would support a move toward making same-sex marriage legal in Maryland.

"I do believe it's a human right, it's a constitutional issue," she told me. The bill passed in the Senate 25 to 21 last week, and it seemed as though everyone was on the same page.

But then came the calls and the fury. "Maryland is so liberal, yes," Alston said. "But there are the churches."

A solidly blue state, Maryland also has deep Catholic roots, and the black churches of Prince George's are a force. An unexpected force for Alston.

"We have about 900 messages we're trying to get through today," she said. "And look at that red light on the phone that says it's ringing. All. Day. Long. Ringing."

The calls are primarily from advocates from both sides of the debate. But when she filters through the national groups and the extremists, the majority of everyday folks who put her in office lean toward the thoughts of the 70-year-old woman on that bus bench.

"Most of my constituents are against it," she said. "And now I have to think of them, to think of representing the people who put me here."

When I went into her district and stopped some people going about their business, I found she was right. Most older folks I talked to are against it. In the 40-to-50 age group, many African Americans I spoke with are listening to President Obama, who recently withdrew his support for the Defense of Marriage Act, and are still going through a process to accept and understand same-sex marriage.

When the vote came up in the Maryland House committee on Tuesday, Alston disappeared. So did a fellow sponsor, Del. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore).

The vote was delayed. There was major drama as House leaders tried to find the missing delegates.

I caught up with Alston in Annapolis this week as she did a huge U-turn to avoid the scrum walking the marble steps of the House of Delegates and ducked into a side stairwell.

"The reporters! It's so hard. I'm trying to avoid them," she told me.

"Hi, I'm a reporter," I told her.

But she didn't run away, and we got to talking.

After absconding from the vote, Alston issued a heartfelt statement in the middle of the night. She's wrestling with her views as a lawyer, a married mother, an elected official and a daughter in a big, church-going family.

"There are several fundamental rights that shape this debate: a fundamental freedom to express yourself; a fundamental right to pursue happiness; and just as important, if not more important, a fundamental right to religious freedom," she wrote.

So in between sessions this week, she went back to her office, where she looked at the mail, listened to the messages and leaned back in her chair, in turmoil, trying to decide where it was that an individual's right begins and ends.

Ideally, she would amend the bill to get Maryland out of the marriage business altogether.

"It should be civil unions for everybody," she said. "Civil unions for men and women and civil unions for same-sex couples. Then, if you want to, go to your church and have a wedding."

She gets up from her chair. Maybe, if the vote is delayed this week, she can have a big town hall meeting over the weekend!

"You've got to change the hearts of people. When people get to know homosexual couples and see them get married and see who they are, it's different," she said. "That right to pursue happiness, that human right to marry who you love, that's what our soldiers are dying for. Protecting these rights we have."

And then the light on her phone goes on again, angrily blinking red, red, red.

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