Gay, lesbian lobbyists claim victory

Assembly session rivaled only by that of Conn., some advocates say

April 15, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Two months ago, hundreds of gay rights advocates converged on the State House on a rainy night to push an ambitious agenda: legislation to give them medical decision-making rights; protection under the state's hate crime laws; and defeat of legislation to ban gay marriage.

Ninety days later, gay and lesbian lobbyists can boast of a victorious legislative session that some activists say is rivaled only by that of Connecticut, which passed a bill to allow civil unions.

"No state thus far has had a year like Maryland," said Carrie Evans, a state legislative lawyer for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. "For the past two years, our state legislatures have been bogged down in these constitutional amendments and marriage-related things and have not really been able to get the proactive stuff much time and traction. Maryland just defied all of that convention."

Since the gay marriage issue exploded last year after battles in California and Massachusetts, 17 states have moved toward banning same-sex marriage through ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments, Evans said. Another 14 have pending constitutional amendments.

Meanwhile, only a handful of states, such as Maryland and Connecticut, are moving toward giving gays extra protections and benefits. The legislation covering hate crimes and medical decision-making failed in Maryland last year. But Equality Maryland, the statewide gay advocacy group, successfully shepherded those bills to passage this year, as well as a measure to allow unmarried couples to make property transfers without paying state and local property taxes.

The bills are not guaranteed to become law. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. could still veto the legislation, though there is little indication that he is leaning in that direction.

Del. Donald H. Dwyer, an Anne Arundel Republican, is launching a petition effort to place a referendum on the 2006 ballot to repeal the Medical Decision Making Act.

Still, some experts and lawmakers say the fact that Equality Maryland was able to push through its agenda, surviving an attempted Senate filibuster in the waning hours of the session, is a testament to its effective and strategic lobbying.

"They did this in a very shrewd way," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "The gay and lesbian community is not going out for an all-out victory. They're disaggregating their demands and getting them through the state legislature one by one so they manage to clamp down opposition by moving incrementally."

But to opponents, such as Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., their tactics are disconcerting.

"They use the word discrimination," said the Baltimore County Democrat who introduced a bill this year that would have ensured that Maryland not recognize gay marriage and civil unions legalized out of state. "They label people a bigot or xenophobic. Nobody wants to be labeled that way. It's very shrewd, very subtle and very effective."

Perhaps Equality Maryland's biggest victory this year was passage of a bill to allow unmarried couples to enroll in a domestic registry, giving them 11 benefits, including medical decision-making and hospital visitation rights.

That, like the property tax transfer bill, was aided by the fact that it applied to all unmarried couples, straight and gay.

While gay rights advocates say the rights they achieved this year are separate from the long-term goal of gay marriages, opponents say all the legislation is a veiled attempt to achieve state-sanctioned unions.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, attempted a filibuster on the medical decision-making bill about 10 p.m. Monday night - two hours before this year's session expired. The filibuster lasted about five minutes, but Mooney said he felt it was an issue that warranted such opposition.

"Not enough senators are willing to stand up to the radical homosexual agenda," said Mooney, who proposed about a dozen amendments to the hate crimes bill, trying to add elderly, obese and pregnant people, among other categories.

"It's all a step toward same-sex marriage," he added, saying his opposition was not tempered by an amendment clarifying that the state was not altering its concept that marriage is between a man and a woman. "If the supporters of the bill were honest, they would say that's what their goal is."

In passing the Medical Decision Making Act, Maryland joins six other states that confer benefits on unmarried couples. Some, such as Vermont and California, offer a broader array of protections, just short of marriage, while others, including New Jersey, are more along the lines of Maryland.

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