House panel defeats pair of marriage bills

Measures were to prevent same-sex unions in Md.

March 06, 2004|By Kimberly A. C. Wilson | Kimberly A. C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

In a victory for gay-rights advocates, lawmakers defeated last night two measures designed to shield Maryland's legal definition of marriage from challenges by same-sex couples.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 11 to 9 to reject bills that would have bolstered existing state law that recognizes only the union of a man and a woman as a marriage.

"This means that fair-mindedness has won out over forces that would deny equal rights to a segment of Maryland's citizens," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay-rights organization.

"It means that members of a very important committee agreed that it was wrong to codify discrimination against a group of taxpaying citizens," he said.

But several lawmakers said they voted against the bills in part because of assurances, in the form of an advisory letter from the office of state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., that same-sex marriages performed in other states would not be recognized under existing Maryland law.

The attorney general also recently sent a letter to court clerks around the state, many of whom have received inquiries from gay couples, saying the clerks are not authorized to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"These bills are unnecessary," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat. "Passing these bills in the face of that advice that they are not necessary would send a real message of hostility to the gay and lesbian citizens of Maryland, and is just piling it on."

One of the bills killed yesterday, sponsored by Del. Charles R. Boutin, a Republican whose district straddles Cecil and Harford counties, would have submitted a constitutional amendment against gay marriage to voters. The other, by Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Baptist preacher, would render invalid in Maryland same-sex marriages performed in another state or foreign country.

Both bills sparked heated debate in the House, partly because Maryland is surrounded by states that bar same-sex marriages.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to take up Senate versions of the marriage bills Wednesday afternoon. But even if they were to pass there, tradition holds that once it has taken a position, the House Judiciary Committee does not reverse its votes, so it would seem unlikely the marriage bills could make it through the General Assembly this year.

Before yesterday's House vote, committee member Del. Carmen Amedori of Carroll County spoke of a need for so-called "defense of marriage" legislation. "This bill is very important to the tradition of marriage in the fact that we have a lot of states that are performing same-sex marriage," Amedori said. Maryland law "does not say that an outside marriage will be invalid," she added.

Weeks ago, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons of Montgomery County directed his concerns to the Attorney General, asking what the state's highest legal office would do if a same-sex couple married elsewhere sued to be recognized in Maryland. The reply, dated Feb. 27, was concise:

"The State would defend [against] such a suit on the ground that section 2-201 of the Family Law Article reflects State policy prohibiting the recognition in Maryland of a same sex marriage," wrote Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnock.

The answer satisfied Simmons, who voted down both bills.

"I'm amazed. I thought the San Francisco pressure would definitely spur them to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. It's not theoretical anymore," said Jean Carr of Gaithersburg, who wed her longtime girlfriend, Este Armstrong, on Feb. 16 in San Francisco's City Hall shortly after city officials began officiating at same-sex marriages.

More than 3,630 couples have been married there to date, and gay couples around the United States have begun to seek marriages licenses elsewhere. New Paltz, N.Y., Mayor Jason West conducted same-sex weddings and has been criminally charged, and Oregon's most populous county began issuing dozens of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

As places performing gay marriages have spread from coast to coast, court officials around Maryland said yesterday that requests are on the rise. But no gay marriage ceremonies have been performed here, they said, and none is imminent.

Curran sent a seven-page memo Feb. 24 to the clerks of the court in each Maryland jurisdiction reiterating that same-sex marriages are not valid in the state.

"We just tell them no," said Mary Booker, head of the Baltimore County court's licensing department. "Up to this point, it's not been a problem."

Larry W. Shipley, the Carroll County court clerk, said no one has asked him to officiate at a gay marriage ceremony. But, should the issue arise, he said, "I would say no, simply because the law does not provide for it. The state is very specific in its family law article on this issue."

In Anne Arundel County, Circuit Court Clerk Robert P. Duckworth also does not expect to issue licenses to gay couples.

"Why would I consider doing gay marriages? The law does not permit it," said Duckworth.

Clerk Marge Rappaport in Howard County agreed. "I follow state law," she said.

Officials at Baltimore's marriage bureau said that occasionally gay couples come in and ask for a marriage license but that the frequency of such requests has not picked up with the issue in the news. In all cases, the couples have been denied.

Sun staff writers Ryan Davis, Larry Carson, Reginald Fields, Mary Gail Hare, Sara Neufeld and Andrea Siegel contributed to this article.

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