Ehrlich Urges Legislature To Debate Gay Marriage

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) will strongly back an effort to address the issue of same-sex marriage in the legislature rather than in the courts, he said in a statement issued last night.

Although Ehrlich stopped short of endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, he urged that lawmakers "bring a full deliberation of a constitutional amendment to the floor of the House of Delegates and Senate to allow legislators and the citizens of Maryland to be heard."

This is critical, he said, because "marriage is of such vital importance to us all."

The governor's two-sentence statement, which aides said he released to clarify his position, offered the first glimpse of the approach he will take in handling a combustible political issue that could have a range of political implications during the 2006 elections.

The governor spoke out as lawmakers prepared to conduct the first committee hearing to examine a proposal to codify within the constitution that marriage be between a man and a woman. Today's hearing is expected to draw to Annapolis scores of advocates on both sides of an issue stoked by a recent Baltimore court ruling.

The ruling, issued 11 days ago by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock, found that Maryland's 33-year-old law banning same-sex marriage is discriminatory and "cannot withstand constitutional challenge." She immediately stayed the decision pending an appeal.

Of the specific proposal being heard in the House Judiciary Committee today, Ehrlich said: "I encourage all efforts to move this debate to the House floor."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) called the governor's statement "premature," saying a proposal to amend the constitution should wait until the judiciary has had the chance to consider Murdock's decision.

"We're just as concerned about that statute as the governor is," Busch said. "But I also believe the judicial system has a process and, at this stage, we have not let that process work."

Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), one of the few openly gay members of the General Assembly, accused the governor of "pandering" to his Republican base.

"It's more obfuscation," Madaleno said. "He's trying to have it every way. When he appears before [gay and lesbian] Republicans, he's going to say, 'All I was supporting was an open debate.' "

Aside from whatever personal views the governor holds on the issue, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Matthew Crenson said, last night's statement appears to be designed to create havoc within the ranks of Democratic lawmakers.

Crenson noted that there is a split on this issue among African Americans -- one of the most loyal Democratic Party constituencies -- with some supporting an amendment on religious grounds and others opposing it as a violation of one group's civil rights.

"This is a political hand grenade that the governor can cast into the midst of this very important Democratic constituency and fracture it," Crenson said.

Crenson said Republican lawmakers would be thrilled to force a vote to get Democrats from conservative districts on the record on the controversial subject.

Should a constitutional amendment pass both chambers, which would require the approval of three-fifths of lawmakers, the measure would go on the November ballot, just as Ehrlich faces reelection and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) attempts to become the first Maryland Republican in two decades to win a U.S. Senate seat.

Crenson and other political analysts said Ehrlich has surely recognized the potential for a ballot initiative to provide both men with a significant political edge. Republican political consultant Kevin Igoe recently compared the issue to "waving a red flag at a bull." If the issue appears on a ballot, he said, it would almost certainly drive up GOP turnout.

Busch said the proposal will get a "full and open debate and a vote" in committee. But it is widely expected that the measure will be unable to get to the floor of either chamber. Republicans have been actively recruiting Democrats to join in an effort to use a procedural maneuver to bypass the committee process. That effort requires 47 members to sign a petition. There are 43 House Republicans.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company