ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Lawmakers in Maryland have introduced twin bills in the state House and Senate that would legalize same-sex marriage -- and it appears the legislation will have enough votes to pass.
Gay marriage has never been considered by the Old Line State's full assembly.
The bill, known as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, is expected to spark a robust debate before the final votes are cast.
"There's a lot of momentum for marriage equality," said Democratic Del. Ben Barnes. "And I think it's good because it's a fundamental issue of equality and rights."
"They're going to continue to argue that this is all about rights," Del. Don Dwyer, R-Md., responded. "When you cross the line on the term 'marriage,' all of a sudden it's a new game."
Dwyer is the leading opponent against the legislation. He and conservative activists say Marylanders will turn the bill down in a referendum if the legislature passes it.
"If we gather roughly 55,000 signatures, then any bill that's passed goes to the people and they have the chance to overturn it," explained Brian Brown with the National Organization for Marriage.
"Maryland has a significant African-American population. And the African-American community overwhelmingly opposes same-sex marriage," he added.
Pastor Rick Bowers, director of the Christian Impact Alliance, is urging residents to contact groups like his to help gather the signatures needed for a ballot vote on gay marriage.
"The group of legislators down here who are proponents of same-sex marriage do not represent the overall majority of Marylanders," Bowers said. "We need to make sure the Christians don't sit home with their value vote in their pocket."
Del. Barnes claimed the bills will explicitly allow churches the right to opt out of performing same-sex marriages.
"But it also gives my church the right to marry who they want," he said. "So in a way, this is a religious freedom issue. If a religion wants to marry someone -- a same-sex couple -- they now have the ability, and government now recognizes it and gives those rights."
But conservatives warn that where homosexuals win marriage, a propaganda war will begin.
"(There will be claims) that those of us who believe that the union of a man and a woman is what a marriage is are the equivalent of racists," Brown explained. "Your children will be taught that you are a bigot. They will be taught about same-sex marriage. This has already happened in every jurisdiction that has passed same-sex marriage."
"Whatever is codified as law in this state, that's what's going to be taught in every school system, every structure," added Derek McCoy of the Maryland Family Council.
Pastor Bowers said far too often, those who believe in traditional values lose to liberals because they don't get out, fight and vote.
"And I think we've made a huge mistake as Christians, and we've let down our society," he said.
Still, Barnes feels conservative Christians shouldn't stand in the way of gay marriage.
"No matter your conception of marriage or God, it can't be denied that there are a bundle of civil rights tied to marriage. And those rights weren't bestowed by God," he said. "I mean, these are pension benefits, rights to visit your loved one in the hospital. These are rights given by government. And when government gives rights and responsibilities, we have a duty to do so without partiality and prejudice."
Republican Del. Dwyer urged lawmakers not to compromise.
"Either we're going to keep marriage between a man and a woman or we're going to give marriage over to same-sex individuals. And the stage is set. I'm ready for the fight," he said.