Md. Senate President Won't Back Gay Unions

Plaintiffs Dave Kolesar, left, and Patrick Wojahn denounce the court's decision Tuesday.
Plaintiffs Dave Kolesar, left, and Patrick Wojahn denounce the court's decision Tuesday. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said yesterday that he would not support legislation to legalize same-sex marriage or civil unions in Maryland, signaling that supporters of gay marriage will face resistance as they take their campaign from the courts to the General Assembly.

Advocates vowed to continue their quest for full marriage rights in the legislature after the state's highest court upheld Maryland's 34-year-old law banning same-sex marriage Tuesday. But Miller said he sees no reason to change the law now.

"People can introduce any bill they'd like," Miller (D-Calvert) said. "But at this juncture, I don't believe the votes are there to change the law. . . . The burden will be on the people who feel it's needed to explain the need for a change."

Maryland Democrats control the General Assembly and governor's office, but their views on same-sex unions are varied and nuanced. Many would prefer to consider granting legal rights and benefits to gay couples rather than debate whether the state should sanction their unions. Some say privately they would rather avoid putting the issue to a vote.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he supports civil unions, but he has kept a low profile on the matter.

Gay advocates' prospects are better in the House of Delegates, which votes more liberally than the Senate and has three openly gay members. The large Montgomery County delegation, for example, "would be supportive of gay marriage," House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said.

However, the legislature's black caucus, typically one of the most reliable voting blocs on progressive issues, is deeply divided on the issue, torn between religious convictions on the one hand and its traditional commitment to civil rights on the other.

"It's not an easy vote," said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's), a black caucus member who is chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. "We've never cast a vote on marriage." Davis said he would not support same-sex marriage or civil unions.

The Court of Appeals' 4 to 3 ruling Tuesday that the same-sex marriage ban does not discriminate against gay couples or deny them any fundamental rights took many on both sides of the issue by surprise. Supporters and opponents said they expected the court to strike down the law or find it unconstitutional and tell the legislature to find a remedy.

In the absence of direction from the court for change, several lawmakers said a new law granting full marriage rights would have little momentum.

"This is clearly an uphill battle," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, a partner in the lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the state on behalf of 19 gay men and women in 2004.

Prospects may be even worse for supporters of a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. A constitutional proposal of the kind pushed by Republicans and killed in committees for the past three years is unlikely to go anywhere, lawmakers said.

A big unknown is the governor. Advocates for gay rights say they will look to him for leadership. But O'Malley aides say he is unlikely to champion civil unions publicly, either now, while his administration is consumed with the state's budget shortfall, or in the future.

Although the gay advocates' fight has been for full marriage rights, some say they might be willing to compromise.

"Marriage equality will always be my goal," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is openly gay. "But do I recognize that process is often about compromise? Yes."

A possible compromise could be legislation that establishes a domestic partner registry for same-sex couples, giving them rights to property ownership, inheritance, health care, insurance coverage, hospital visitation, child custody and pension benefits.

Furmansky said such a bill would be far from ideal: "When we get into setting up separate legal constructs . . . the question becomes which rights do we deny same-sex couples, and why?"

But some lawmakers said a bill of this kind might have a better chance of passing. Miller, for example, voted for a registry in 2005, a measure later vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

"If people can point out problems that can be addressed short of civil unions, perhaps the General Assembly can move forward," Miller said.

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