Bills Pursued to Gain Rights Piece by Piece

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

As they gear up for their campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland, gay rights advocates are broadening their strategy to pursue a range of legal rights now denied gay couples.

Advocates and lawmakers say their goal is indisputably a law granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples. But as they seek such a law in the General Assembly session that starts Wednesday, they plan to also propose legislation that would give them rights to property ownership, inheritance, medical and end-of-life decisions and other benefits of marriage.

"What we decided to do is pursue a handful of bills that take care of some of the urgent needs of our families," said Carrie Evans, director of policy and planning for Equality Maryland, Maryland's leading gay rights group.

The evolution in strategy comes as advocates acknowledge that prospects for legalizing same-sex marriage have little momentum in the legislature, at least not this year. They shifted their quest for marriage rights to the General Assembly in the fall, after Maryland's highest court upheld the state's 34-year-old ban on same-sex marriage. The Court of Appeals, ruling that the ban does not discriminate against same-sex couples or deny them fundamental rights, in effect threw the issue back to the legislature.

In recent years, lawmakers have swiftly defeated several efforts by conservative Republicans to write the ban into the state constitution. But it quickly became clear after the court ruling that same-sex marriage, which is legal in Massachusetts, will be a tough sell.

"I don't think we see a whole lot of momentum in that direction," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who does not support legislation to legalize same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has kept a low profile on the matter, supports civil unions, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said, but not same-sex marriage. Civil unions give couples a broad range of legal rights, but fewer than marriage provides. The Legislative Black Caucus, typically one of the most reliable voting blocs on progressive issues, is deeply divided on the issue.

"I'm not trying to deny anybody rights," said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's), a black caucus member. "But I have certain philosophical beliefs" that marriage is between a man and a woman.

A possible compromise, to pursue a bill granting gay couples the civil unions that are now legal in six states, fizzled. "In the end, we decided that marriage equality is what we want," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is openly gay. "We need to educate people as to why it is marriage and not civil unions that we want."

So the advocates' strategy has shifted to parallel goals of a same-sex marriage bill that could take years to get approved and more piecemeal steps. They include legislation to exempt a surviving domestic partner from inheritance taxes on joint property and to eliminate recordation and transfer taxes imposed on partners when they are added to home deeds. Advocates also want to ensure that same-sex partners have the same rights as spouses to hospital and nursing-home visits, organ donation and accompanying a partner on an ambulance ride.

"These protections we hear time and again from our community are huge, everyday needs," Evans said. But she cautioned that the gay rights community is treading carefully. It does not want to establish "parallel institutions" for same-sex couples, she said. Abbruzzese said the governor would "look favorably" on legislation that would enhance legal protections for gay couples.

Same-sex marriage opponents plan to pursue a constitutional amendment, although their chances remain dim, lawmakers say. The Maryland Catholic Conference, anticipating a hot debate on the issue in Annapolis, issued a policy statement Friday opposing same-sex marriage on the grounds that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman to pursue the goal of procreation.

The conference, which represents the state's three dioceses on policy issues, is distributing the statement to parishes throughout Maryland.

However, the Church and some lawmakers might be open to the kinds of rights outside marriage that advocates are pursuing. "In concept, we support the right of any two individuals to make medical decisions for each other," said Mary Ellen Russell, the conference's deputy director.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a conservative Eastern Shore Republican who opposes same-sex marriage, said the legislature needs to find a middle ground. "Absolutely, we should remove barriers [to same-sex couples] that are discriminatory," he said. "I don't deny that gay couples are denied many of the rights that are codified for married, heterosexual couples."

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