Gay rights advocates urged sympathetic clergy members and churchgoers yesterday to support a lawsuit that would force Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages.

Dan Furmansky, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Maryland, and David Roach, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the clergy needed to demonstrate that the religious community is not universally opposed to the concept and should turn out when an ACLU case involving 19 Maryland plaintiffs goes to court in Baltimore on Aug. 30.

Roach said that the case probably will be appealed to the state's highest court regardless of who wins in Baltimore Circuit Court, and that it probably will be many years before the U.S. Supreme Court accepts a case on same-sex marriage.

"The debate has to happen at the state level before it can be resolved at the federal level," Roach said.

In explaining his case, Roach gestured to two plaintiffs in the case, Glen Dehn and Charles Blackburn of Baltimore, who have been together for 27 years but cannot marry under Maryland law. "They are a family," Roach said. "The question is whether the law will recognize that reality . . . or create a fiction and treat them as strangers."

Members of several large Christian denominations -- including Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians -- attended the meeting at a Frederick church, but Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches were not represented. The Catholic leadership remains strongly opposed to homosexuality, and the Episcopal clergy is sharply divided over the appointment of a gay bishop in 2003.

Clergy members at the meeting welcomed debate over the issue, saying it would refute the notion that Christian leaders and their parishioners are automatically opposed to same-sex marriage.

"We seem like we spend so many years trying to figure out God instead of just serving God's people," said the Rev. Lawrence J. Harms, archbishop of the American Catholic Church, a small denomination unconnected to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. "It's our calling to bring compassion, love and understanding to God's people. It is not our job to push people away. It is not our position to judge people."

Glen Dehn, left, and Charles Blackburn, partners for 27 years, are among those suing to force Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages. "They are a family," the ACLU's David Roach said.Dan Furmansky of Equality Maryland says the clergy needs to show support.