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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Maryland could soon become the next state to recognize marriage for gay couples. A state judge is considering a lawsuit on the issue, making Maryland one of seven states where the definition of marriage is in play.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane met at a small Catholic college 27 years ago. They kept their relationship secret until Polyak bore their first child through artificial insemination. Three years later, Deane did the same. It was then, when Gita Deane was in the delivery room, that their status as an unmarried couple was driven home. Polyak says the doctor arrived to give an epidural, looked at Polyak and said, who are you?

Ms. LISA POLYAK (Co-Plaintiff): And I said, well, I'm her partner. And she looked around the room and she said, you, you have to leave. You know, I was holding her hand and she was in pain, she was having contractions. She said, nothing gets done until you leave the room. And I left the room because, you know, it was either that or she didn't get the epidural.

HAGERTY: Polyak says no matter how many times they visit their lawyer, they cannot get all the legal protections of a married couple. More than that, Polyak says, she and Deane were troubled by the social stigma that their daughters might encounter. So, they decided to sue.

Ms. POLYAK: When we entered the marriage litigation, we explained to them what we were doing and my oldest one looked to me and she said, what do you mean you're not married? Why didn't you take care of this?

HAGERTY: Because Maryland has a statute prohibiting same-sex marriage, says Ken Choe, one of their attorneys at the ACLU. Their lawsuit claims that the ban violates the state constitution.

Mr. KENNETH Y. CHOE (Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): Gay couples in this lawsuit, and in similar lawsuits, are not seeking to redefine marriage. They are simply taking the institution of marriage and saying that there has been a historical exclusion from it for which there is no legal justification.

HAGERTY: There are similar lawsuits in six other states: Washington, California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Iowa. They're all hoping for a Massachusetts-style win. In 2003, that state's highest court became the first to sanction gay marriage. But it's been a surprisingly tough road for gay activists since Massachusetts says Matthew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a conservative law group. He says he braced for an avalanche of cases as gay couples in other states demanded the same right to marry. And, indeed, gay couples in San Francisco, Oregon and New York did demand and receive licenses, only to be slapped down.

Mr. MATTHEW D. STAVER (President and General Counsel, Liberty Counsel): They began to lose all these different cases around the country and they began to realize that this strategy to just rush headlong into the other states wasn't going to work; that the culture was not ready to accept same-sex marriage.

HAGERTY: That was made crystal clear says Jordan Lorence, an attorney for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, on Election Day, 2004. Eleven states, including traditionally liberal Oregon, passed amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Mr. JORDAN W. LORENCE (Senior Counsel, Alliance Defense Fund): That was a development that I think neither side really anticipated, and that has really slowed a lot of this litigation that's been going on.

HAGERTY: Even the federal court seemed a bit dangerous. Matthew Staver says advocates for same-sex marriage couldn't win before a Supreme Court with Sandra Day O'Connor on the bench, much less Samuel Alito.

Mr. STAVER: So they ramped back on their timeframe, and they're going at a slower pace in a piecemeal fashion, hoping that, in their words, the culture will catch up with the courts in some of these jurisdictions.

HAGERTY: In other words, trying to win one state at a time.

Mr. DAVID BUCKEL (Attorney, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund): To the extent that our opponents see us being careful, they are right.

HAGERTY: David Buckel is an attorney at Lambda Legal, which is representing gay couples in five states. He says it takes time to educate the public just as it did in the fight to legalize interracial marriage.

Mr. BUCKEL: We are smack-dab in the middle of a civil rights movement. We have enormous resources marshaled against us, and so, we have to be very careful about how we move forward.

HAGERTY: He says polls show that people in their 20s and 30s favor gay marriage and the courts will eventually follow, but opponents doubt that, and they're hoping that a slue of state amendments in this year's elections will make that clear. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. MONTAGNE: The court battles over gay marriage can be viewed state by state at NPR.org.

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