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Gay Marriage Amendment Seen Eroding Current Rights

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006; B01

The sponsor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Maryland undermined his cause by drafting a proposal that would also eliminate rights long afforded to gay men and lesbians, lawmakers on both sides of the debate said yesterday.

The "breathtakingly vicious scope of this amendment is such that it strips away existing protections for citizens of Maryland who happen to be gay," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) as members of the House of Delegates waded into the emotional debate over same-sex marriage.

Simmons said the proposed amendment, submitted by Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Anne Arundel), would nullify local laws in Montgomery County and Baltimore that allow gay public employees to extend health benefits to their partners and to own property jointly. A law professor later said Dwyer's proposal was "so incoherent and sloppy" that it could inadvertently outlaw divorce.

Dwyer told the House Judiciary Committee that he had not intended to "take away any rights that are currently granted" and that he would welcome amendments to correct that.

One Republican leader said a bill with simple language would have been stronger. " 'Marriage involves one man, one woman.' That would have done it," said the lawmaker, who asked not to be named because he did not wish to publicly criticize a member of his caucus.

The questions about the proposed amendment came during the legislature's first committee hearing on the subject, which lasted seven hours and drew hundreds of spectators, more than 225 of whom sought to testify. The crowd was so boisterous at times that extra troopers from the Maryland State Police were brought in to ensure calm. Dozens waited for hours in the outdoor chill for a chance to sit in the packed hearing room.

The vast majority trekked to Annapolis to support the proposal, which, if approved by three-fifths of the lawmakers, would appear on the November ballot.

Dwyer, who has offered the measure in past years, said it took on a degree of urgency after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled Jan. 20 that Maryland's 33-year-old law banning same-sex marriage is discriminatory and "cannot withstand constitutional challenge." The judge immediately stayed the decision pending an appeal.

Democratic lawmakers have said the legislature should wait until higher courts rule before putting a measure on the ballot. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) urged the legislature Monday to give the amendment "full deliberation."

As yesterday's hearing approached, a network of at least a half-dozen religious and other organizations sent out thousands of e-mails urging members to attend.

Several in the crowd held Bibles. Many wore pins advertising a marriage protection Web site.

Those who got seats in the hearing room were treated to a wide-ranging debate on judicial authority and constitutional law. They saw firsthand the tensions that surface when issues as personal as religion and sexual orientation collide with the political process.

Dwyer began his presentation by attempting to recite the Declaration of Independence, before he was cut short by Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's). Dwyer said he would resist the call from House leaders to wait for the state's high court to rule.

"What you're asking me to do is put my faith and trust in the Maryland Court of Appeals, and I cannot do that," he said.

Robert P. Duckworth, the Anne Arundel County court clerk who has made his name conducting marriage ceremonies, pounded his fist on the table as he told lawmakers that their failure to respond now would "turn the institution of marriage on its head."

The crowd cheered as he vowed to resist any request by a same-sex couple to marry in his courthouse.

At another point, a delegate asked the executive director of the gay rights group Equality Maryland whether he believed that laws and rights came from God. Dan Furmansky replied, "I believe I am a child of God . . . so the answer to your question is yes."

A smaller group of advocates of same-sex marriage gathered outside with signs of protest. Kate Klos, a clinical social worker, took off work to attend, saying she hopes someday to marry her partner. She wore a rainbow-colored cross, saying it's important to remind people that not everyone who is devout opposes same-sex marriage.

Inside, some religious leaders made the same point, urging lawmakers to distinguish between marriages recognized by the church and the responsibility of the state to provide what Rabbi Sarah Meytin called "full civil equality."

Civil rights was at the core of arguments made by the state's NAACP chapter and the state's AFL-CIO representative.

Elbridge James, the NAACP chief, said his group would view a constitutional ban as a return to the 1860s, the 1870s and the 1920s, "when African Americans lost their rights."

But it was Jamin B. Raskin, an American University law professor, who returned to Simmons's avenue of attack. The bill, Raskin said, "wildly overshoots the mark" by eliminating basic rights available to gays now. He called it the first amendment of its kind since Prohibition specifically aimed at taking away rights, instead of advancing them.

"This bill would turn the Bill of Rights into a bill of wrongs," he said.

The House committee is expected to vote on the proposal as early as this week. If it does not clear the committee, the ban's supporters say, they will deploy a parliamentary maneuver to try to force a vote on the House floor.

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.

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