House takes on same-sex marriage legislation

Largely sedate committee hearing precedes tough floor battle

February 25, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

A House of Delegates panel heard testimony Friday on the pros and cons of allowing same-sex couples to marry, a day after the Senate approved the measure.

More than 100 people signed up to testify in a House Judiciary Committee hearing that spanned the entire afternoon and sprawled into an overflow room.

Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, began the hearing by saying the panel is likely to vote on the measure early next week. It is expected to clear that hurdle; a majority of the committee's members are co-sponsors. But the bill's ultimate fate is unknown, with the 141-member chamber apparently nearly evenly split.

Friday's hearing opened with commentary from some of the House's 58 bill sponsors, openly gay legislators and other supporters.

"This is not about abstractions," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur, as she introduced her wife, Deborah. "This is not about definitions."

The two married in 2008 in California, but, the Montgomery County Democrat said, "right now we are legal strangers to each other."

After an hour, the committee switched to opponents and alternated on the hour as it made its way through the witness list.

"Most of my adult relationships are untouched by the law," said Maggie Gallagher, chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage. Of heterosexual marriage, she said, "these are the only unions that create new life."

The General Assembly session hit its midway point on Friday, and so far the same-sex marriage legislation has dominated the 90-day legislative gathering.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 25-21 to approve legislation that would end Maryland's 38-year-old definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Such a repeal would mean that same-sex couples could be issued a marriage license by the state. The proposal does not require any religious institutions to perform the ceremonies.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said he would sign the legislation. But voters are likely to have the final say. By collecting about 55,000 signatures, opponents of same-sex marriage could petition the new law to referendum on the 2012 ballot.

At the House hearing, committee members asked few questions. And although some of the testimony veered into topics such as "reformed homosexuals" and polygamy, the atmosphere in the cramped committee room remained mostly respectful. Same-sex marriage proponents, many of them wearing red clothing or rainbow ribbons, sat beside opponents, many displaying stickers with figures of a man, a woman and a child.

Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who supports same-sex marriage, delivered some of the spicier early testimony, poking fun at Eastern Shore Republicans and saying he'd reviewed the witness list and found that "God has not signed up either for or against" the legislation. Same-sex marriage opponents in the audience booed.

Del. Don Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who has called himself "the face of the opposition," began his testimony with a prayer. He implored legislators to look to their faith before they cast their votes on the issue.

"Look deep into your soul for the answer," he said. Dwyer also has proposed sending the question of whether marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples directly to voters.

The Rev. Pierre Bynum, chaplain of the Family Research Council and a minister at Calvary Chapel of Waldorf, testified that same-sex marriage was "an affront to religious faith and to the natural order created by God."

Many bill supporters sought to confront the religious arguments of opponents.

Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said the state should continue its 400-year tradition of tolerance. He urged lawmakers to focus on the separation of church and state. "We don't make laws solely based on religious doctrine," said the Baltimore Democrat.

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