Carrie Evans

Q&A --

Gays Plan Rights Fight

From the right to marriage to recognition of their needs on a broad array of social and economic issues, Equity Maryland leader hopes for significant legislative gains

January 20, 2008|By Alia Malik | Alia Malik,Special to The Sun

After Maryland's highest court upheld the state's ban on same-sex marriage last September, advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community changed their focus to lobbying the General Assembly. They proposed the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would change the state law specifying that marriage must be between a man and a woman.

These advocates have their work cut out for them. Last week, a Sun poll showed that only 19 percent of likely Maryland voters support same-sex marriage, compared to 39 percent who favor civil unions instead and 31 percent who oppose any legalization of same-sex unions. This came days after the activists' champion in the legislature, Prince George's Democratic Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, died unexpectedly, putting their Senate lobbying on hold last week and adding another blow to the proposal.

Opponents have repeatedly tried to write a ban on gay marriage into the state Constitution, and the Maryland Catholic Conference issued an opposition statement earlier this month. Gov. Martin O'Malley thinks that a law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples would be more practical and consensus-building than a marriage law, said his spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese.

But advocates remain optimistic -- and busy. In addition to the same-sex marriage bill, which could be introduced this week, legislation is being proposed that would combat discrimination against transgender individuals and give gay couples a slew of rights, including the right to add domestic partners to housing deeds tax-free and to include domestic partners in medical decision-making.

The legislation is being backed by Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group. The group includes a registered lobbying organization, an anti-discrimination education and community outreach foundation and a political action committee to endorse candidates and influence elections.

Carrie Evans, director of policy and planning for Equality Maryland, discussed the proposals and their chances in this year's legislative session in an interview last week. Here is an edited transcript: What's happening now with the same-sex marriage bill?

The irony is, we were supposed to be having a press conference last Tuesday where Senator Britt was introducing the bill, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. So we're still devastated ... and we are regrouping. ... It will be very hard for the community of Equality Maryland to absorb this loss and move on, but we're going to. Senator Britt would want it no other way. What would the same-sex marriage bill do?

Right now, the Maryland law says marriage is between a man and woman, and it opens it up to two people who aren't prohibited -- you know, like grandmothers and your sister and brother. We can do this 400 times and piece together all of the protections that come with marriage, or we can expand marriage to two people who qualify for a marriage license. You can't get a more simple bill than that, with no fiscal note attached. In fact, a report just came out by the Williams Institute last month that shows the state would actually take in a lot more money, because they would get all the sales taxes from the gay weddings.

There's a handful of people on either side that have their convictions, but most of the people, they're not sure of how they feel about it. They think somehow it would compel their church to do something that it doesn't want to. That's why it's important to us to have "religious freedom" in the title, because it explicitly underscores that churches and religious folks will be able to perform and honor marriages just as they do now, if same-sex couples and their relationships are not consistent with the faith of that church. What we're asking for is the marriage license and all of the civil protections that come from that. Why not just propose a civil union bill?

It's been very problematic in the states that have had civil unions. Actually implementing a separate system for a group of people is expensive, first of all, and it's confusing to the people who have to administer it. Civil unions were devised to basically withhold marriage from same-sex couples. There are 1,138 federal rights and responsibilities of marriage, then 400-plus state rights. Civil unions don't even touch any of those federal protections. And the state rights -- you leave the state and you're legal strangers again. So a couple leaves Vermont, they go to New York, well, they're legal strangers, they're nothing to anybody. I'm married, I go to New York, and I'm still married. That's a big one because we're a fluid country. We're moving, we're traveling, we're visiting, we're going overseas.

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