"Society should protect and strengthen marriage and not undermine it," said the Rev. Derek McCoy, who heads the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a new coalition aimed at stopping the measure. "There are many Marylanders who believe marriage should be defined as between one woman and one man."
He was among a series of pastors who offered that message Tuesday at a packed hearing on Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. It was the first time a legislative committee has scrutinized the governor's proposed same-sex marriage law, called the Civil Marriage Protection Act.
O'Malley supported but was not a sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill introduced in the General Assembly last session. This year, his staff borrowed ideas from other states to clarify a section of the legislation offering protections to religious groups.
Though several hundred people attended, the hearing had the feel of a dress rehearsal for the big show, a similar hearing in the House of Delegates.
Last year a same-sex marriage bill passed in the Senate, and O'Malley's version is expected to win approval there as well. The legislation ran into stiffer opposition in the House, where it was pulled from the floor when supporters realized they did not have enough votes for passage.
This time the House bill — which has not been introduced — is expected to be sent to two committees instead of one, setting up an even larger stage for a hearing.
O'Malley, a Democrat, was the first to testify Tuesday, making a rare appearance before a General Assembly committee. The governor spoke for two and half minutes, and stuck mostly to themes that he's used previously when discussing the bill.
"We all want the same thing for our children," O'Malley said. "It is not right and it is not just that the children of gay couples should have lesser protections than the children of other families in our state."
He took a few questions from Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, who asked him indirectly about first lady Catherine Curran O'Malley's recent remarks that some delegates who withdrew their support last year were "cowards."
The governor said that opponents have "a right" to disagree with his position. Mrs. O'Malley has apologized for her remarks.
The main difference between the governor's bill and last year's legislation is the section on religious protections, which has been rewritten to clarify that churches, synagogues and mosques would not have to perform same-sex ceremonies or support gay couples.
Several faith leaders acknowledged Tuesday that the bill does provide strong protections for their institutions, but said they also want businesses — like bakeries and wedding planning companies — or deeply religious individuals to be able to refuse to serve couples in same-sex marriages.
Such a change would be in violation of state laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. Reworking those laws is considered unlikely to happen.
Several religious leaders also asked the panel to look for an alternative to the legislation that would not change how marriage is viewed in the state. "Civil unions would do the same thing," said the Rev. John A. Lunn of the Berean Baptist Church in Baltimore, speaking in opposition to the bill.
"Why not civil unions?" asked Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, though she quickly added that the church would not support that either.
The Senate committee resoundingly voted down such legislation last year.
The testimony on both sides avoided some of the strong rhetoric that offended some during last year's hearing. During that discussion ,Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he became so horrified by some opponents' arguments that he decided to support the bill.