Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) announced his 2012 legislative agenda Monday evening, which includes support for same-sex marriage, continuing a commitment he made in July 2011.
The move sets off what supporters of the measure expect to be a hard-fought campaign to put marriage equality into law, followed by a likely referendum fight.
''This session, our legislative agenda will help us create jobs for Maryland families, protect the quality of life for all Marylanders, and continue our push for a more sustainable future,'' O'Malley said in a release announcing the agenda, which includes a wide range of items.
Tuesday morning, O'Malley met with marriage equality supporters at a breakfast held at the governor's residence to discuss the bill before introducing it to the General Assembly. O'Malley told reporters that the bill focuses more carefully on protecting religious freedom.
''The governor's bill not only protects but strengthens religious freedom,'' said the Rev. Dr. John R. Deckenback, conference minister of the United Church of Christ Central Atlantic Conference, in a statement released by the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition following O'Malley's Jan. 23 agenda announcement. ''The governor believes – as do I – that protecting religious freedom is critically important. Such freedom is the bedrock of this country's tradition and is a longstanding American value.''
The coalition's release also quoted Ezekiel Jackson, political organizer for SEIU 1199 of Maryland and president of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
''Labor is on the side of all working families – not just certain families,'' he said. ''There are thousands of same-sex families who wish to make a better life for their kids. Their dream just got closer to reality today because of Governor O'Malley.''
The General Assembly's annual session, which began Jan. 11, runs 90 days, and supporters of marriage equality have limited time to pass the bill. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert, Prince George's counties) has said in multiple interviews that he plans to bring the measure up early in the legislative session. It is expected to pass the Senate with 25 votes.
In 2011, the Senate passed a marriage-equality bill by a vote of 25-21. The measure went to the House of Delegates where it narrowly passed out of committee, but was sent back to committee when legislators realized they did not have the votes to pass it.
Last year, Sen. Allan Kittleman (R-Carroll, Howard counties) was the only Republican to vote for the bill in the upper chamber, and no Republicans expressed support for the measure in the House.
Ahead of O'Malley's announcement, Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery Co.) told Metro Weekly he believed O'Malley's support would be crucial in passing the bill, especially since much of last year's opposition came from socially conservative Democrats in Baltimore County and Prince George's County.
''The governor of Maryland is extraordinarily powerful, according to the state Constitution, and is given broad powers,'' Madaleno said of O'Malley and his ability to influence legislators to deliver the needed votes. ''This governor has a pretty good batting average.''
Tuesday, after the bill's introduction, Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said the governor's support gave the fight for marriage equality ''a huge jolt of momentum.'' Evans said O'Malley's support might be important in convincing uncommitted Democrats to back the measure.
''It just sends a strong message to the Democrats who are undecided that the governor who shares their party is supporting it,'' she said. ''I would hope some of them do take note and help the governor get his whole legislative package passed.''
Opponents of marriage equality, who last year successfully lobbied legislators to oppose the bill, have vowed to make a strong show in Annapolis. Already, groups such as the Maryland Catholic Conference and several Maryland churches have begun circulating fliers for a rally opposing same-sex marriage, sponsored by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, in Annapolis Jan. 30.
Evans said Marylanders for Marriage Equality plans to hold a prayer breakfast the following morning with religious leaders who support marriage equality. After the breakfast, the clergy members will give a press conference. Many will then testify in support of the bill at a hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee scheduled for Jan. 31.