Md. lawmakers begin preparing for 2008 battle

Politics

September 19, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN REPORTER

Within minutes of Maryland's high court upholding a ban on same-sex marriage, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle began preparing for what is sure to be a pitched battle in the next General Assembly session over what rights -- if any -- gay couples should be afforded.

"I see it being a fight," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "And it's hard to predict the outcome."

Conservative lawmakers promised to reintroduce a constitutional amendment that would make clear that marriage is an institution limited to heterosexual couples, an amendment that has stalled in committee in years past.

Others said they intend to propose that same-sex couples be given the same state rights as their heterosexual counterparts, a concept that activists are calling civil marriage. Still others are already talking compromise, which could resemble the civil unions that exist in several other states or could look like something else altogether.

What they agree on is that the court ruling gives a legislature that was already expecting a busy session another -- and likely contentious -- set of issues to sort out come January. Most legislators had been avoiding the same-sex marriage issue while waiting for the court to rule.

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, has been at the forefront of past efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. While he called yesterday "a wonderful day" in the wake of the court ruling, he wasn't dialing back the rhetoric. Even though the court agreed with his stance, he still thinks a constitutional amendment -- which would have to be approved by voters -- is a necessity.

"The amendment is simply an insurance policy," he said.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House Republican leader from Southern Maryland, said that the case even got to the Court of Appeals -- a lower court found the state's marriage law discriminatory -- proves the need for the amendment.

"It highlights the vulnerability of our law, and so it may be important that in order to prevent an activist judge from taking a provision of our law to make a far-reaching decision that was never intended, we need to clarify the law," he said.

To pass a constitutional amendment, opponents of same-sex marriage would need to win the votes of two-thirds of the legislators in each house. The measure would then be placed on the ballot in the next statewide elections -- which are in even years in Maryland.

If the Assembly were to pass a bill allowing same-sex marriage, or some version of civil unions, opponents could put the measure on the ballot if they can gather enough signatures.

Those who support civil marriages for same-sex couples, which confer all of the legal rights of marriage including a state license, say now is the time to push for equality under the law. They say they aren't interested in civil unions, which some call "marriage lite," because by definition they perpetuate a separate and unequal system.

"I think the next step in Maryland will be to evaluate whether a civil marriage bill can pass the legislature," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore City Democrat who is openly gay. "I don't know the answer to that. I would think it would be very difficult."

But, she said, "In 2007, a family unit where people have respect for each other, people live in committed and trusting relationships, people who are dependent in some way on one another, come in all shapes and sizes, and there's some value to recognizing that."

Del. Victor R. Ramirez and Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, both Prince George's County Democrats, said they will introduce bills legalizing same-sex marriage in the coming session. "It's the right thing to do," Ramirez said.

Only the California legislature has passed same-sex marriage legislation without being instructed to do so by a court. The first time it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A second bill is on the governor's desk.

States that do not ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions, but whose high courts have upheld same-sex marriage bans, have become battlegrounds over issues of gay and lesbian rights, said Julie Shapiro, an associate professor at Seattle University Law School.

For example, Washington's highest court upheld its same-sex marriage ban, but earlier this year lawmakers there adopted limited same-sex partnerships, allowing gay couples the right to visit a partner in the hospital or plan a partner's funeral.

"People are moving to the legislatures," Shapiro said. "And many people believe that's the way it should be discussed. You can't say this is activist judges imposing their ideology. After all, state legislatures, who are responsive to their electorate, are free to do as they want."

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