A vote is imminent in the House of Delegates for the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which passed out of the House Judiciary and House Health and Government Operations panels, 25-18, Feb. 14. Del. Sam Arora a Democrat from Montgomery County abstained. The vote in Maryland will take place against the backdrop of gay marriage legislation being signed into law this week in Washington State.

But, if the atmosphere I encountered in the House this week is any indication, the 2012 battle to make same sex marriage law in Maryland will be even more raucous than 2011. Proponents of the bill need 71 votes in the House.

“Everything is in flux right now, the Senate is waiting on the House, the House is waiting on the Senate,” said Baltimore County Delegate Emmitt Burns, one of the most vocal opponents of the gay marriage legislation.

“What the proponents want to know is that they have the votes before they bring it to the floor of the House and they’re not sure that they have the votes yet,” he added.

The bill’s supporters gained a “yes” vote, Feb. 14, when Anne Arundel County Del. Robert Costa became the only House Republican to support it. Del. Patrick Hogan, another Republican says he’s still undecided.

Indeed, everyone I talked to said proponents of the bill are still at least a few votes short for passage out of the House. Nevertheless, the bill getting out of committee this week is a big boost for same sex marriage advocates and it indicates House leadership feels they have enough votes to pass it on the floor.

But, be clear Burns and his allies are undeterred.

“The governor is out beating up on delegates trying to get the votes he needs and I just think it’s despicable that the governor would want to turn our state into a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah,” Burns said with righteous indignation rippling in his voice.

In 2011, Burns trotted out the possibility of a statewide referendum on gay marriage – with glee – if opponents of it lose in Annapolis and he says it’s still an option for 2012.

“That’s plan B,” Burns said. “But, we’re working as hard as we can on plan A right now. I don’t want to go to plan B, but if I have to I will.”

Even some of the bill’s supporters are struggling mightily with the emotionally and spiritually charged issue.

“When I first came to the legislature I was opposed to same sex marriage. I felt that it wasn’t right for two men or two women to get married. I felt that’s not the way God would want things to be,” said Del. Shawn Tarrant who represents the 40th District of Baltimore City, who was actually a co-sponsor of last year’s House version of the same sex marriage bill.

“After meeting year after year with my constituents and everybody would give me a little different twist on the reasons why they needed to have these protections that married people have,” Tarrant added.

Tarrant also likened the same sex marriage fight – in a limited way – to the Black American struggle for civil rights.

“There are exemptions that individuals were trying to amend on to the bill that would deal with a photographer or a bakery that they could actually deny a gay couple the use of their facilities because they’re gay,” Tarrant explained.

“I said man you’re taking us back to Jim Crow where there’s a safe Black bakery to go to that will take Blacks. And so I’m saying that even though I had a hard time deciding to vote for gay marriage, I don’t want gay people to go through what my grandfather went through.”

Tarrant says he was also motivated by the evolution of his mother on the issue of gay marriage.

“My mother’s 69 years old. She said, `Shawn, they’re already living together, paying taxes contributing in a positive way in the community, why can’t they get married?’

So, part of my vote is for my mother. If my mother can come from being homophobic in the 70’s to 2012 saying `go ahead and vote for it,’ I really feel I need to do what’s right for those people who need those rights,” he said.

Prince George’s County Del. Tiffany Alston found herself in the middle of a firestorm during last year’s fight to pass the gay marriage bill, during a well publicized incident with Baltimore City Del. Jill Carter. This year she still feels like she’s taking incoming from the proponents of the bill and from Gov. O’Malley himself.

“I think the way this whole issue has been brought about is nothing short of bullying,” Alston argued.

“People want their way and they’re willing to do any and everything within their power to get it and I think that’s wrong; I think it’s fundamentally wrong,” she added.

Last year Alston was indicted twice on charges ranging from misappropriation of funds to theft and misconduct in office, charges she says are retaliation for her opposition to the same sex marriage bill.

“I think what’s really concerning to me more than anything is the governor is going around touting equality for marriage but, he’s not looking at equality for African Americans. We’re still being discriminated against in this state; there’s an issue right now where the HBCU’s are suing the state; the governor’s not talking about giving them equality,” Alston said.

“Yet, he wants to take marriage equality in order to further his own political agenda and I think that’s problematic,” she added.

“There’s no willingness or ability to compromise; it’s all or nothing my way or the highway. So, if you’re not willing to compromise then you’re seen as an obstructionist; you’re seen as a coward, you’re seen as a bigot and all for having a different opinion – that’s bullying.”

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor