By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008; B01
Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage clashed before a Maryland Senate committee yesterday, with traditionalists invoking religious convictions and gay rights advocates describing their cause as a civil rights struggle.
The lengthy hearing, which drew dozens of speakers on both sides of the most divisive social issue the General Assembly will take up this year, was headlined by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), who became Maryland's first elected statewide official to endorse legislation allowing same-sex marriage.
Gansler's office had successfully defended the state against a lawsuit by gay couples who sought to overturn a law prohibiting same-sex marriage. But yesterday, the former prosecutor from Montgomery County called same-sex marriage a "moral imperative" and a "basic matter of fairness."
"This bill is fundamentally about equality," Gansler told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It would be wrong for me to have this job knowing there's something so wrong in our society and just ignore it." He said qualms about same-sex unions seem to be limited to older people: "For the younger generation, this is a non-issue."
Gansler's testimony punctuated a debate that has simmered in Annapolis for several years as conservative Republicans have tried to write Maryland's 34-year-old ban on same-sex unions into the state constitution. But the issue took on new urgency on both sides last year, when the Court of Appeals upheld the ban and left it to the General Assembly to decide the matter.
Yesterday, the committee considered several measures. One would allow same-sex marriages, and another would abolish civil marriage ceremonies confined to heterosexual unions and replace them with domestic partnerships for all couples.
A third bill would put to voters a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman, and a fourth would authorize "covenant marriages," unions between men and women who would agree to accept limited grounds for divorce.
Advocates and lawmakers acknowledge that the legislature is unlikely this year to approve either same-sex marriage or a change to the constitution to ban it.
But a compromise on civil unions for gay couples, giving them a broad range of legal rights, has a shot at passage. The Senate committee, which has several members who are social conservatives, could be more receptive to civil unions.
Some of the senators and those testifying before them revealed intimate details of their family lives.
As she expressed support for covenant marriage, Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) said that she and her husband once sought counseling. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel), has described it as a way to reduce the divorce rate and save children from what she said were divorce's consequences: suicide attempts and lawbreaking.
Terry O'Neill, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women and an opponent of covenant marriage, described her years in what she called an abusive marriage. She said covenant marriage would take Maryland "back 30 years" by preventing women from escaping violent husbands.
Bill Wingard of Timonium, speaking against same-sex marriage, told lawmakers he went to a therapist who thought he was a "suppressed homosexual" before he married a woman and had five children.
Many supporters of traditional marriage said opening the institution to same-sex unions would diminish it. They said the Bible's teachings led them to a conviction that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
"When the name 'marriage' can be stamped on any romantic entanglement, it loses all meaning," said Dean Nelson of Gaithersburg, director of the Network of Politically Active Christians. Clergy members would not be required to perform same-sex marriages under the bill.
But gay rights advocates, in arguments just as personal, made their case for marriage rights as a step in the fight for equality.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), a lead sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, said he was married to his partner, Mark, in a church ceremony seven years ago.
"He is my spouse," Madaleno said. "But under Maryland law, he is invisible. It is a badge of dishonor I must wear every day." The couple has two children.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), the measure's other lead sponsor, said it was wrong for the law to allow a murderer on death row to "marry and marry and remarry" while thousands of other couples in Maryland cannot. Fifty lawmakers have signed on to the bill.
Raskin and Madaleno were challenged by two Republicans on the committee, Alex X. Mooney (Frederick) and Bryan W. Simonaire (Anne Arundel), to defend polygamy if they believe in marriage equality for every group.
"Why are we taking this one group of people and saying we want equality just for them?" Simonaire asked. Madaleno called the question a "red herring."