Judge Strikes Down Md. Ban on Gay Marriage

Lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Gita Deane, left, and Lisa Polyak of Baltimore, are savoring their victory but acknowledge that challenges lie ahead.
Lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Gita Deane, left, and Lisa Polyak of Baltimore, are savoring their victory but acknowledge that challenges lie ahead. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Baltimore judge ruled yesterday that Maryland's law banning same-sex marriage is discriminatory and "cannot withstand constitutional challenge," throwing open the possibility of a bruising legislative battle over a constitutional amendment.

Unlike decisions in Massachusetts and New York state, the Maryland ruling will not immediately bring lines of same-sex couples to city hall for civil ceremonies. Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock immediately stayed her decision, and the attorney general's office has voiced plans for an appeal.

Nevertheless, the judge's decision thrilled the 19 gay men and lesbians who filed suit last year after being denied marriage licenses in courthouses across the state. They challenged a 1973 state statute that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"It really is exciting," said Dave Kolesar, 28, an engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and one of the plaintiffs, who said he was bowled over by the victory. "I wasn't ready, mentally, for success."

The effect of the ruling could be far more immediate in how it alters Maryland's political landscape. The decision comes during the state's contentious 2006 campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate. And it lands as the Maryland General Assembly's 90-day session has just gotten underway.

Although Democratic leaders who control both chambers have not embraced gay marriage, they signaled strong resistance yesterday to a constitutional ban. Those opposing same-sex unions vowed to force the issue to the top of the legislature's agenda.

"The evidence is now on the table. We must pass a constitutional amendment," said Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Anne Arundel). "This issue is not for the courts to decide."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) expressed dismay with the court at an afternoon news conference. He hinted that he would get behind a drive to amend the constitution, saying he would "take the appropriate steps to protect marriage."

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Ehrlich said. "Again, Maryland is in the national limelight, and it's not positive."

Eighteen states define marriage in their constitutions, many in amendments approved since 2003, when a Massachusetts court opened the door to same-sex marriages there, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts is the only state that issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples, though Vermont and Connecticut recognize civil unions. Four states, the District and several dozen localities allow couples to formalize relationships through domestic-partnership registries.

The Virginia House of Delegates has approved a constitutional amendment that would bar same-sex marriages. If approved in the Senate, the measure would appear on the ballot in November.

In the long-awaited 20-page Maryland court ruling, Murdock took the position that banning same-sex marriage was no less discriminatory than outlawing interracial marriage, saying that "although traditions and values are important, they cannot be given so much weight that they alone will justify a discriminatory statutory classification."

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