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By MAGGIE CLARK and DAVID SALEH RAUF
Delegate Mary Washington, an openly gay Baltimore Democrat, speaks to the House of Delegates Friday during the same-sex marriage floor debate. (Photo: Kerry Davis)
ANNAPOLIS (March 11, 2011) — The Maryland House of Delegates on Friday effectively killed a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage by sending the measure back to committee where it's not expected to resurface this year.
After more than two hours of impassioned debate, House members voted to bounce the proposal back to the House Judiciary Committee, a 22-member panel that wrestled with the measure for days before sending it to the full House last week.
Friday's action all but puts an end to one of the most emotionally-charged proposals the legislature will debate this session. Several lawmakers on the House floor cried or fought back tears as they listened to colleagues tell personal stories.
Delegate Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, drew a standing ovation when she shared the story of coming out to her mother and how she hopes to marry her girlfriend of eight years.
"I deserve to marry the person I love," Kaiser said. "And we want to get married in Maryland."
The debate at times centered on whether marriage for same-sex couples follows in the footsteps of the civil rights movement. Delegate Emmett Burns Jr., D-Baltimore County, argued that the two movements are not equivalent.
"If same-sex marriage is to be equated with the movement that I know, then show me your Birmingham, Alabama. Show me your James Meredith, my classmate, who risked his life to get an education. Show me the mangled bodies of four little girls who were bombed to smithereens while attending Sunday school," Burns said.
In the end, advocates for the bill could not muster the 71 votes needed in the 141-member chamber and supported the move to send it back to committee. The bill is expected back next year.
"We're a couple short of where we needed to be to assure that we were going to win and we didn't want to post a vote on the board where we could have come up short," said Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery Democrat and one of seven openly gay lawmakers in the House.
"We're going to keep working on our colleagues until we have those absolute commitments firm in hand and take it to the bank," Mizeur said.
It's still unclear how many votes supporters had, though lawmakers said they had confirmed pledges from at least 69 members. Mizeur described the margin as "razor thin."
"We will come back next year, take a strong look at it, see where people are and determine whether or not to go forward with the legislation," said House Speaker Michael Busch.
The Senate passed the measure two weeks ago by a 25-21 vote with relatively little conflict, setting up what many felt would be a smooth ride through the House - traditionally the more liberal of the two chambers.
But the bill hit unexpected resistance in the House Judiciary Committee, where it lost much of its momentum in the process.
Lobbying by religious organizations, especially black churches, intensified as members wrestled with the proposal. Some black delegates from Prince George's and Baltimore said Friday they refused to vote against their "base," a reference to the churches that support them.
"The black churches are asking us not to call it marriage, pass civil unions," said Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, as she argued to change the bill to grant only civil unions to same-sex couples.
Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs called the Senate's passage of the bill two weeks ago a "wake up call" for opponents.
"Quite frankly I thought it was going to fly through the House. But once everybody started rallying, it made delegates think about what they were going to be doing and how upset their constituents would be one way or the other," Jacobs said.
Busch offered another explanation for why supporters could not get 71 votes to send the bill to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who last week urged the House to pass the bill so he could sign it.
Busch said a combination of factors, including a so-called mandate from the Senate not to amend the bill, contributed to its downfall.
"A lot of the individuals did not feel comfortable with the idea that they were not allowed to discuss, debate, change the bill. Basically the format was laid out that the best position was to take the Senate bill without any amendments," Busch said.
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery Democrat and the floor leader during the Senate debate, said the upper chamber was open to amendments "as long as we're reconciling the value of equal rights under the law with religious freedom."
For now, supporters are focused on next year. Busch said House leaders will use the time to craft a new bill that addresses issues lawmakers have about protections for religious groups. He estimates roughly one-third of the chamber's 98 Democrats opposed the measure, but only about 10 lawmakers could probably be swayed one way or the other.
"As of next year people will have more information and determine what direction they want to take," Busch said. "I think you'll find a final conviction for everyone on that issue next year."