ANNAPOLIS – Glen Dehn and Charles Blackburn met at a party in Baltimore’s historic Bolton Hill neighborhood in the late 1970s.
Within a month, the two started living together.
Fast forward roughly 32 years: Dehn, 73, and Blackburn, 78, are still an item.
They’ve balked at the idea of getting married in one of the handful of states that allow same-sex marriage for one reason. They want to exchange vows in Maryland.
“I have never felt so much enthusiasm, momentum and positive attitudes,” Blackburn said of a proposal that would allow same-sex marriages in Maryland.
The first legislative showdown of 2011 over the issue unfolded Tuesday in a packed Senate committee hearing, as factions of some of the state’s most liberal and conservative groups clashed. In a standing-room-only event, more than 140 people signed up to testify.
Religious organizations, same-sex couples and lawyers were among the groups that stuffed inside the Senate Judicial Proceedings hearing room and waited hours, in some cases, to weigh in. At times, emotions ran high.
“God made marriage between a man and a woman,” said Bishop Roger Tatuem of the Harford County Coalition for Divine Kingdom Order, who opposes the bill.”This type of disruption of divine order can have devastating consequences.”
Tuesday’s hearing was one of several debates lawmakers are expected to have on same-sex marriage this session.
The subject is quickly taking center stage in the General Assembly. Outside of the budget, possibly no other issue has generated as much attention, spawning early notions of a ballot box challenge if a law is passed and even creating a rift that led to a change in Republican leadership.
Supporters, bolstered by recent public opinion polls showing the tide apparently swinging in their favor, are making impassioned pleas to lawmakers to extend the legal rights that come with marriage to same-sex couples.
“Until this bill is passed, Maryland will remain a state where some families are at risk of being torn apart not because they lack the strength of commitment, but because they are invisible in the eyes of the law,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, a lead sponsor of the bill and one of four openly gay members of the General Assembly. “It is unacceptable for this General Assembly to continue to turn its back and do nothing.”
Since 1973, Maryland has defined that only a marriage between “a man and woman” is valid. The law was challenged in 2004 by nine same-sex couples who filed suit in Baltimore, contending that the state statute defining marriage is unconstitutional.
A Baltimore circuit court ruled the statute unconstitutional and discriminatory, but in 2007, the state Court of Appeals reversed the decision by a 4-3 vote.
Since the lawsuit was filed in 2004, Republicans have introduced legislation every session to define marriage in the Maryland Constitution as “between a man and a woman.” The efforts have failed but not gone unnoticed by supporters of marriage equality.
“They just wanted to squelch the issue totally,” said Blackburn, who along with Dehn was a plaintiff in the 2004 lawsuit. “They felt emboldened by the courts.”
The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, the bill before the General Assembly, would redefine marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two individuals.” It would not force religious officials to perform same-sex ceremonies if they contradict their beliefs.
If passed, Maryland would join five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage. Maryland currently recognizes same-sex marriages from other states.
In 2009, Maryland extended health benefits to state employees, retirees and their children that are in same-sex relationships, a victory one lawmaker referred to as a “piecemeal approach” to granting same-sex couples equal rights.
The bill has 18 sponsors in the Senate. Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would sign marriage equality legislation.
Similar measures have been filed in past sessions. All have died in committee.
This session, supporters say they hope to take advantage of what they perceive as the most favorable political climate ever for same-sex marriage. The makeup of the Senate committee deciding the initial fate of the bill has turned in their favor.
Equality Maryland, a group that supports the gay community and is pushing the same-sex marriage bill, hired the powerhouse lobbying firm Alexander & Cleaver, P.A., the second highest earning lobbying firm in 2010, according to the State Ethics Commission.
“We’re doing all we can to support our message,” said David Lublin, a co-chair of Equality Maryland’s legislative committee and the mayor of Chevy Chase.
Looming in the background, however, is the potential for a same-sex marriage law to be rejected by voters. Opponents already are mustering a game plan to get the necessary 53,650 signatures needed to put the issue to a voter referendum, a move that has proven fatal for same-sex marriage across the country.
“We know the vote will be very close,” Martha Schaerr, a member of Maryland for Marriage’s executive board, a group that opposes the bill, said of a possible referendum.
“We think the public is with us,” she said.”Gays and lesbians have the right to choose how to live but not to redefine marriage.”
The issue is also partly responsible for a change in Senate GOP leadership.
Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, and the former Senate Minority Leader, stepped down from his leadership position earlier this session because of his views on the subject. He offered a strong public endorsement of the bill Tuesday.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” he said.”I believe it’s a very Republican principle to have freedom and liberty in your economic life as well in your personal life. That’s why I support this bill. It’s not because I’m going against my party, I’m going for what I think is right.”
The Senate committee did not vote on the bill. Testimony was expected to continue through the evening.