By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Advocates for same-sex marriage plan to introduce legislation in the Maryland General Assembly today that would abolish civil marriage ceremonies now confined to heterosexual unions in the state and replace them with domestic partnerships for all couples.
The bills represent an unusual new tactic in the effort to push legal rights for gay couples through the House and Senate during the legislature's 90-day session. Sponsors of the measure say they are attempting to address head-on the concerns of lawmakers who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
Under their proposal, all couples -- straight or gay -- would be on equal footing with secular unions. Religious marriage in churches, synagogues and mosques would be unaffected, as would existing civil marriages.
The word "marriage" would be replaced with "valid domestic partnership" in the state's family law code.
"If people want to maintain a religious test for marriage, let's turn it into a religious institution," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), the bill's Senate sponsor.
Some Republican leaders scoffed yesterday at the bill's strategy.
"What they're talking about is an even more radical departure from traditional marriage than even advocates for gay marriage are talking about," said Del. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington), the minority whip. "They're creating a situation for one special interest group that basically diminishes the value of marriage for everyone else."
Shank and other opponents say that same-sex unions defy religious convictions that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Fifty lawmakers have signed onto another bill that would grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples, an effort by advocates to win in the legislature what they lost in Maryland's highest court last fall when it upheld the state's 34-year ban on same-sex marriage. The Court of Appeals in effect threw the issue back to the General Assembly.
Raskin is a lead sponsor of that bill as well. "If those of us who are straight can experience the sense of indignity gay citizens experience every day, just for a moment, then this bill will serve its purpose," he said.
Advocates and lawmakers acknowledge that full marriage rights are not expected to be approved this year. Chances for passage are good in the House but not in the more conservative Senate, where it would be hard to overcome a filibuster by opponents. Conservative Republicans are attempting for a third year to write the ban into the state constitution, an unlikely prospect but a reflection of many lawmakers' uneasiness with same-sex unions.
So lawmakers came up with another option that is designed as an eventual compromise on civil unions. Civil unions, which are legal in six states, give couples a broad range of legal rights, but fewer than marriage provides.
The issue faces its stiffest opposition in the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, where social conservatives from both parties dominate on some issues. Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who supports full marriage rights for same-sex couples, said the panel would be more receptive to a civil unions bill.
"We're heartened that there are so many proposals out there that seek to remedy the problems that go along with marriage inequality," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's leading gay rights group.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he supports civil unions.
Del. Todd L. Schuler (D-Baltimore County), the new bill's House sponsor, said the idea of making marriage a religious rather than civil institution came out of a series of conversations with opponents of same-sex marriage.
"We thought there was some common ground -- that marriage should be strictly for churches but that rights and benefits have to be administered equally," he said.
Schuler acknowledged that he's not sure the bill "is what opponents had in mind." He said he was swayed by a dissenting opinion by one of the judges in last year's 4 to 3 Court of Appeals decision, who suggested as one legislative option that the state get out of the marriage business altogether.