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No ‘wait-and-see’ approach for same-sex marriage opponents

ANNAPOLIS — Citing California as both precedent and a rallying cry, several Maryland legislators are gearing up to try at the ballot box what they may fail to do in the General Assembly this year: defeat a measure to allow same-sex couples to marry in the state.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil and Harford, said Friday she has met with representatives from California groups involved in the successful petition and referendum drives that overturned same-sex marriage in that state in 2008. Jacobs did not name the specific organizations or individuals.

“The people from California have already been here,” Jacobs said Friday, the day after the Senate voted 25-21 in favor of the proposed Civil Marriage Protection Act, Senate Bill 116.

The legislation is now before the House Judiciary Committee, which held hearings on Friday.

While the measure does not yet have the 71 votes needed to pass the full House, supporters believe they are already within two or three votes of that number. And Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he intends to sign a bill if the General Assembly passes one.

Meanwhile, same-sex marriage opponents are not waiting to see what happens.

Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., a Judiciary Committee member who wants to keep the definition of marriage as it is under current law, said he and other supporters of the coming petition drive and referendum effort would solicit contributions nationwide.

Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, said he expects that the effort would raise several million dollars.

Gay-rights groups said Friday that they are preparing to fight the petition drive with a broad-based public education campaign. The groups said they will be checking petition signatures and challenging those they believe are invalid.

“If we have to go to the polls, then we’re going to fight every step of the way,” said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland. She added that California’s referendum experience cannot be compared to what might happen in Maryland.

For example, gay-rights advocates in California had just five months to try to defeat that state’s referendum, she said. In Maryland, they would have nearly 18 months between SB 116’s potential enactment in April and when the general election in November 2012, when the issue would go before voters.

Referendum advocates would need the signatures of 55,736 Maryland voters to get the issue on the ballot, according to the State Board of Elections.

“I don’t really think that there’s going to be a problem” getting the necessary signatures, Jacobs said.

The California Supreme Court ruled on June 16, 2008, that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the state’s constitution. The decision prompted a petition drive and referendum on Nov. 4, 2008, at which California voters approved Proposition 8. The proposition amended the state constitution to enshrine marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker of San Francisco struck down the ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional last August. The prohibition, however, remains in effect pending appeals.

Dwyer, citing California’s voters, said a Maryland referendum — which “we’re definitely going to have” — would also succeed.

“When the voting public is given the final say, marriage remains between a man and a woman,” he said.

But Susan Sommer, senior counsel at the gay-rights litigation group Lambda Legal, said the California vote has no relevance to any future referendums because the public’s sensitivity toward the rights of same-sex couples in loving committed relationships has increased since 2008.

As evidence of the “game-changing shift” in attitudes, she cited the Obama administration’s decision last week to stop defending the constitutionality of the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

In 2008, “we weren’t at a place where DOMA was in the last inches of its life,” Sommer said.

She also disagreed with the legislators who drew comparisons between California and Maryland.

“Maryland is Maryland,” Sommer said. “Maryland is its own unique place with strong values of fairness.”

Gay-rights advocates will fight a petition drive by telling voters that same-sex marriage promotes equality and provides economic benefits for Maryland in terms of the revenue weddings generate for hotels, restaurants and caterers in the state, Sommer said.

“Maryland will have to engage in a real discussion about fairness, about what makes good sense for the state,” she added. “It would just be plain bad policy for the people of Maryland not to allow same-sex couples to marry here.”

But Jacobs, who helped lead the opposition to same-sex marriage in the Senate, said she would forgo a planned vacation with her husband this spring if SB 116 is enacted and a petition drive becomes necessary.

‘I’m going to stick around and make sure we’re good,” Jacobs said.