A chance shake-up of Maryland House of Delegates seating assignments brought Republican Wade Kach face to face with gay couples who had come to make the case for a gay marriage law, and might have proved decisive in its final passage through the state's General Assembly on Thursday.
In an effort to get the bill onto the House floor, a special joint committee was formed and legislators were left scrambling for seats. Kach, who had previously backed attempts to define marriage as between one man and one woman, found a space right next to the witness table.
"I saw with so many of the gay couples, they were so devoted to one another. I saw so much love," he said. "When this hearing was over, I was a changed person in regard to this issue. I felt that I understood what same sex couples were looking for."
A week later, Kach voted for the gay marriage bill on the floor of the House of Delegates, one of only two Republicans to do so. Their support proved vital, as the bill squeaked through the 141-member chamber on a 72-67 vote. The bill passed in the Senate on Thursday — 25 to 22 — and Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat and a strong supporter of the legislation, is expected to sign it soon.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have until June 30 to collect the 55,736 signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot in November. Upholding the law on a popular vote, experts say, will require its supporters to navigate the twisted pathways of race and religion that have stymied similar efforts in the past, most notably in California.
Since 2004, increasing numbers of Maryland residents have told Washington Post pollsters that they support gay marriage, and in the most recent poll, 50% of respondents said they favored passing the law while 44% were opposed. Support is weaker, though, among African Americans, who make up almost 30% of the state's population.
The Rev. John Lunn, pastor at Berean Baptist Church in Baltimore and head of the area's conference of Baptist ministers, is confident the law will be rejected on a popular vote.
"African Americans view marriage as between and a man and a woman; that's all we know," he said. "That's because of the strong religious background that is involved in our nature. African Americans have a strong faith — it was all we had to hold on to."
Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, which supports same-sex unions, said the organization would be pressing its case in black communities. But Roger Sneed, a professor at Furman University in South Carolina, who studies African American attitudes toward homosexuality, said any outreach efforts would be fraught with difficulty.
Sneed said that during the battle over Proposition 8 in California, gay rights groups did not effectively make their case in black, Latino and Asian churches, leaving an opening for conservative Christian organizations. Exit polls in California showed that 70% of blacks voted for the constitutional amendment, which banned same-sex marriage.