House OKs rights for unmarried couples in Md.

Bill two votes shy of being veto-proof

Senate passed a version last month

General Assembly

April 08, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

After two days of fierce debate, the House of Delegates passed a sweeping measure yesterday that would give an array of benefits - including medical decision-making rights - to unmarried couples, putting the legislation a step closer to the governor's desk.

The 83-50 vote - two short of being veto-proof - came after sometimes-emotional arguments, including a declaration from Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. that passage of the bill would personally benefit him and his longtime partner.

"If he is in the hospital, why should I have to stand at the door waiting for his mother or father to call the hospital and say, `Let him in?'" the Montgomery County Democrat asked. "I don't want my partner to have to sit in a room with strangers and face a medical emergency alone. ...

"I cannot believe you find me so repulsive, you find my life so repulsive, you find the lives of tens of thousands of your constituents so repulsive," Madaleno added, in a response to critics who have called the bill an opening for supporters of same-sex marriage.

But opponents, who unsuccessfully proposed a series of amendments, defended themselves just as fiercely.

"I just want to make it perfectly clear that those of us who oppose this don't find anyone repulsive," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican and the minority whip.

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, said: "Why don't we just stop the charade? This bill is Maryland's civil union bill."

Called the Medical Decision Making Act of 2005, the bill would create a registry of domestic partners, straight and gay, who consider themselves "life partners." Eligible couples would have to be at least 18, living together and not related.

Couples would receive certificates giving them the right to make medical decisions for each other, visit each other in the hospital and oversee funeral arrangements, among other benefits.

Nationwide, dozens of local governments recognize domestic partnerships. Six other states have laws that confer benefits on unmarried couples, with most offering a broader array of protections, some akin to those of married couples.

Major victory

A similar bill passed the House last year with 103 votes and died in a Senate committee. But last month, in a major victory for supporters of the concept, the Senate passed its version on a veto-proof 31-16 vote.

This year's House and Senate versions are slightly different and must be reconciled before being sent to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The main difference is a provision in the House bill to ensure that the registry information is private and available only to hospitals and medical professionals.

Ehrlich has yet to take a position on the legislation, which has been steeped in controversy and urgency amid the national debate over gay marriage and over medical decision-making issues raised by the Terri Schiavo case.

Stronger lobbying

Del. John Adams Hurson, the sponsor of the bill, said the lobbying seemed to be significantly stronger this year. The Maryland Catholic Conference exerted its political muscle in opposition, arguing that it was an attempt to elevate same-sex relationships to the status of marriage.

"This is not about religious rights; it's about human rights," said Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's not about marriage; it's about dignity and human rights for people during very difficult times in their lives."

The bill was being championed by Equality Maryland, a statewide gay rights advocacy group, as one of its top legislative priorities. Though pleased yesterday, Dan Furmansky, executive director of the organization, expressed regret that it even had to exist.

"It's a sad commentary that this legislation is necessary to make that happen, but same-sex couples, in particular, are virtual strangers in the eyes of the law," Furmansky said.

Opponents of the legislation said that most of the rights in the bill can be addressed through other legal avenues. And O'Donnell invoked the Schiavo case in arguing against it.

"This country just went through the terrible distress of watching Terri Schiavo go through a terrible situation," he said. "You're going to create much more of these situations. You're going to rip families apart."

`Personal freedoms'

But supporters said the bill will give a level of dignity and respect to those who cannot or don't want to get married.

"This is about personal freedoms," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George's County Democrat. "We believe in personal freedom. Then let's act that way."

For some couples who have had to tackle awkward situations in emergencies, the bill's passage brought hope that they soon will have one less form of discrimination to worry about.

Jodi Kelber-Kaye, who was thrown out of a hospital room when her longtime partner was emerging from heart surgery, called yesterday's House action gratifying.

"Every patient should be treated with dignity and respect," said Kelber-Kaye, 40, who lives in Baltimore with her partner of 12 years and their two sons. "This is just a sign that our legislators understand that unmarried people deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as married couples when they're in the hospital."

Takia Foskey, who was forced to remain in the general waiting room of a hospital with no information about her partner, who was receiving gallbladder surgery, said the legislation is simply a measure of respect.

"This would be a great help," said Foskey, 30, of Baltimore. "I feel very, very pleased."

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