Maryland lawmakers yesterday approved a pair of bills offering new rights and protections to gay men and women, advancing an agenda pushed by the last Democratic governor and bolstering the state's liberal reputation on social issues.
One measure would allow domestic partners to make medical decisions for each other, and the other would add offenses motivated by sexual orientation to the state's hate crimes law.
After an impassioned and at times contentious debate, the House of Delegates passed legislation 83 to 50 that would grant gay couples and other unmarried partners who register with the state many of the medical decision-making rights afforded to spouses. A similar measure was approved by the Senate last month.
In the Senate, lawmakers voted 34 to 13 yesterday to expand the scope of the state's hate crimes law to include crimes based on the sexual orientation of the victim. The measure had cleared the House in nearly identical form.
Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, said he was heartened that both bills, which have stalled in the past, now appear bound for the desk of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
"There's no sound policy argument against either piece of legislation," said Furmansky, whose group advocates for gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Ehrlich has yet to voice a public position on either bill, which lawmakers will have to reconcile before presenting to him. Most of the opposition to the measures has come from Republicans.
"The governor will carefully review these bills in the coming weeks and make a decision," said Shareese DeLeaver, Ehrlich's spokeswoman.
Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D), spent his second term battling to extend civil rights protections to gay people. In his final year, he won passage of a measure that added gay men and lesbians to those legally protected from discrimination in housing, employment and access to public accommodations such as restaurants and theaters.
Supporters of the domestic partnership bill argue that it will provide dignity and equal rights to people in committed relationships.
Opponents yesterday characterized it as a disguised "civil union" act.
House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) called creation of the registry "a sweeping change" and said he feared it would "chip away at the traditional institution of marriage" and "rip families apart."
The measure passed after an emotional plea from Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who described how a gay friend spent his final hours of consciousness alone among strangers while his partner stood in a hospital waiting room, pleading to gain access.
Madaleno, who is gay, said he would register immediately "if and when this bill passes," so he doesn't have to stand behind a closed door while his longtime partner "faces a medical emergency alone."