Suit to Allow Gay Marriage in Md. Argued

Gay couples and their supporters assemble outside the Baltimore courthouse, where the legal challenge was argued.
Gay couples and their supporters assemble outside the Baltimore courthouse, where the legal challenge was argued. (Photos By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

BALTIMORE, Aug. 30 -- The plaintiffs include a pair of senior citizens, worried about being separated in a nursing home. There are working mothers and fathers concerned about their children's health insurance. Others describe immigration, adoption and inheritance woes.

The nine same-sex couples and one bereaved gay man who are suing Maryland for the right to marry say they are not asking for creation of a new right, just the chance to share in one that has been fundamental for heterosexuals.

"I think the thing that binds us all is that we want a level playing field for our families, to have the same protection that other families have," said Baltimore engineer Lisa Polyak, who with teacher Gita Deane, her partner of 24 years, is raising two daughters.

The suit, filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, was argued in Baltimore Circuit Court on Tuesday before Judge M. Brooke Murdock. The ACLU is asking the court to strike down a 1973 state law that limits marriage to heterosexual couples. Defendants are court clerks in the state to whom the gay couples unsuccessfully applied for marriage licenses.

"The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is totally irrational," attorney Kenneth Y. Choe of the ACLU told Murdock.

Attorneys for the state were quick to defend Maryland law and years of precedent.

"Marriage is described as between a man and a woman repeatedly," argued Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch.

His co-counsel, Assistant Attorney General Steven Sullivan, warned that the state has a compelling interest in preserving its law. To legalize same-sex marriage on a state level "would create a morass" of legal confusion among states and the nation, he said.

"It's an inescapable fact that federal law describes marriage as between a man and a woman," he added.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not taken a case on gay marriage, and states are hewing to their own ways for now. Only Massachusetts recognizes same-sex marriage. Several states and the District grant same-sex unions similar legal status to marriage. Other states, including Virginia, have passed laws banning same-sex marriage.

This year, the Maryland legislature passed a domestic partnership bill that would have granted some rights to gay partners who registered with the state. The measure was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who said it threatened "the sanctity of traditional marriage."

At Tuesday's hearing, Murdock listened and occasionally asked a question. She pondered the place of state courts in the national debate and wondered about the role of legislatures and the nature of marriage.

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