The real battle for same-sex marriage supporters and opponents in Maryland will play out over the next eight months. That’s because the legislation that passed the state Senate last week and the House the previous week is likely to end up in the hands of voters in the November general election. And that’s as it should be.
There aren’t too many issues that so clearly divide the electorate as same-sex marriage. The polls confirm that fact. A recent one by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies indicates 49 percent of Maryland voters support same-sex marriage and 47 percent are opposed. That 2 percentage-point difference falls within the poll’s margin of error.
The Maryland poll mirrors results of The Pew Research Center, which determined in October that 46 percent of Americans favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while 44 percent were opposed. Just 10 years earlier, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57-35 percent margin, according to Pew.
In voting as they did, Maryland lawmakers made the state the eighth in the nation to approve same-sex marriage. That number stands out when compared with the 38 states that have prohibited same-sex marriage.
Most of those states have adopted “defense of marriage” language that spells out matrimony in their state constitutions and/or state laws in language similar to that in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the act defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
As in Maryland, Washington state legislators this year approved same-sex marriage, but that law also has yet to take effect. In addition, a California appeals court decision allows same-sex marriage there unless a higher court reverses the ruling. Conversely, lawmakers in New Hampshire are trying to be the first in the nation to repeal the state’s same-sex marriage law. It has a real chance of passing both houses of the state legislature, according to the New York Times.
As a 2010 paper by the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, a number of state lawmakers around the nation are keenly aware of polling numbers on the hot-button issue: “Their vote on same-sex marriage is based largely on public opinion, and some believe that the issue should be squarely in front of voters.”
Others will argue that the referendum serves as a crutch or even a cop-out for elected officials. After all, Maryland, like the other states, is a representative democracy. Voters elect officials to lead and make thoughtful decisions. If they disapprove of the decisions, voters have the option of booting their representatives from office.
Still, since 1915 popular referendums have been permitted in Maryland to repeal laws previously enacted by the General Assembly. The state is among 24 that allow for the referendums, which are placed on the ballot by citizen petition.
If the referendum is going to remain a sensible option that isn’t casually invoked or abused, it should be reserved for the weightiest issues. The case certainly can be made that same-sex marriage, given the fervor on both sides, qualifies in a big way and that the voters should have their direct say.