The matter of civil unions

January 27, 2008

The Maryland General Assembly will soon consider legislation to remove the state's ban on same-sex marriage. We wholeheartedly support the effort.

Numerous are the rewards - to the individuals involved and society as a whole - that spring from this vital social institution. The broad range of benefits (and obligations) that come with marriage should not be denied certain people because of sexual preference.

But it would be foolish not to recognize that the proposal has little chance of passage this year. Too many lawmakers, particularly in the state Senate, actively oppose it.

Public opinion is also running strongly against it. A recent Sun poll found that only about one out of five Maryland voters supports same-sex marriage. Currently, only Massachusetts permits same-sex marriage, and a sizable number of states ban all legal recognition for same-sex relationships.

That's why we believe the time may be right for Maryland to authorize civil unions for same-sex couples. Admittedly, it is not the same thing as marriage. It would require creation of a separate legal structure - perhaps even an unwieldy one - that is unlikely to offer all the benefits of marriage.

It is for this reason that same-sex marriage advocates are often among the proposal's most ardent foes. They see it as an effort to thwart the case for genuine equality.

After all, civil union protections generally end at a state's borders. Nor would they have any impact on matters governed by the federal government - as often is the case with health insurance benefits, for instance. Marriage would be better.

But without a civil union law, the difficult task of trying to string together piecemeal rights denied same-sex couples issue by issue is all the more challenging.

Even more important, civil union should be seen as a bridge to the ultimate goal of ending discrimination by sexual orientation. As others have noted, civil rights are usually secured by incremental steps. And an overwhelming majority of Marylanders favor civil unions, according to the Sun poll.

None of this would be necessary if the Maryland Court of Appeals hadn't reversed a Baltimore Circuit Court judge and upheld the ban on same-sex marriage last September. But that decision is unlikely to be altered anytime soon.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to support a civil union bill. If such a law would help offset, if only partially, the injustice done same-sex couples, it ought to be approved this session.

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