Maryland Catholics “disappointed” over Governor Martin O'Malley's decision to sponsor a gay marriage bill.

O'Malley announced on Friday that legalizing gay marriage would be a priority of his administration during the next regular session of the General Assembly in January.

“As a free and diverse people of many faiths, we choose to be governed under the law by certain fundamental principles or beliefs, among them equal protection of the law for every individual and the free exercise of religion free of interference from government,” he told reporters in Annapolis.

“Other states have found a way to protect both these fundamental beliefs.”

“Therefore in the 2012 legislative session, I will sponsor legislation that protects religious freedom and protects marital equality rights equally under the law.” (The video is embedded in the right panel of this page.)

Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, called O'Malley's decision “disappointing.”

“The moral and social impacts of redefining marriage would be pervasive and severe,” Russell said in a statement. “Stripping marriage of its unique connection to parenthood disregards the reasons why government has always elevated marriage over all other relationships as the fundamental building block of society.”

“Treating heterosexual and same-sex relationships differently is not unjust discrimination. Upholding the truth of marriage furthers the rights and equal dignity of all human persons by promoting a social fabric where children can benefit from the unique gifts of a mother and a father.”

If approved, Maryland would become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage. New York's recently approved law takes effect on Sunday.