Irene Huskens, right, and her partner, Leia Burks, sit on the front porch… (David Crary / Associated…)
CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. — Maryland, which just a month ago appeared poised to become the first state in the country to back gay marriage by popular vote, is now reported to be deadlocked on the issue, in part because of a drop in support from religious blacks.
Only a few weeks ago, polls were suggesting that Marylanders were leaning toward supporting gay marriage, but as November approached, the numbers tightened.
The change appears to be partly driven by black pastors in Maryland urging their congregations to vote against the measure.
During a sermon in October, pastor Harold L. Dugger of First Baptist Church in Prince George's County, Md., asked his congregation to go to the polls to cast their votes against same-sex marriage.
"No vote means you've already voted," Dugger told church members. "We stand firmly on the word of God — your faith has to do a lot with what you do at the polls."
A poll conducted in late September for the Baltimore Sun showed the measure to legalize same-sex marriage ahead by 10 percentage points, with more than 50% of African Americans supporting the idea despite a history of opposition from black churches. A quarter of black respondents were opposed.
Since then, voters in Maryland have been exposed to a media blitz, with both sides airing TV ads in an effort to swing undecided voters their way. The latest polling for the Sun, conducted Oct. 20-23 by the Annapolis, Md., firm OpinionWorks, now shows 50% of black voters against same-sex marriage, with 42% supporting the idea.
After his recent Sunday service, Dugger said his opposition to the measure does not lessen his support for President Obama, who has endorsed the legalization of gay marriage. "But for me as a biblicist, I will always take the position that same-sex marriage is wrong."
Backers of the Maryland measure wonder how clear it will be to voters that while approval would give same-sex couples the right to marry, no religious organizations would be forced to perform such ceremonies. Supporters believe that if undecided voters understand that, the measure is more likely to pass.
Linda Herbert, 28, of Baltimore, who backs the measure, said she hoped that voters would "read the referendum entirely" before making a decision.
"This is a civil rights issue — we need to respect the separation of church and state," Herbert said, adding that some of her older family members still struggle with the notion of gay marriage.
There is one man who gives supporters good reason to worry. Frank Schubert, the political strategist who helped engineer the defeat of same-sex marriage measures in California in 2008, Maine in 2009 and North Carolina in 2012, is leading the charge in Maryland as well.
"32-0 is a pretty good record," Schubert said, referring to the 32 states that have defeated ballot measures to legalize same-sex marriage. He also criticized what he calls "a concerted effort to convince black voters that as Democrats they should support Question 6" on the Maryland ballot out of loyalty to the party.
Turnout in the state is likely to be driven by the presidential election, with Democrats expected to show up in big numbers. In the 2008 election, African Americans accounted for 25% of the Maryland vote.
But Schubert thinks the effect of Obama's endorsement will be "superficial" at best.
Supporters of gay marriage, meanwhile, are wary of polls, having been disappointed before.
"We know from the history of this issue in other states that the polls are not always right," said Kevin Nix, spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
It's a point the anti-gay-marriage side makes as well. Deana Bass, communications director for the Maryland Marriage Alliance, noted that "in past elections, when same-sex marriage received an uptick in the polls, it was still defeated at the ballot box."
Gay marriage is already legal in six states and the District of Columbia, but in each of those cases it was the Legislature or courts that changed the law, not direct votes by the people.
Electorates in Maine, Washington and Minnesota also go to the polls next week to vote on same-sex marriage.