By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008
With prospects all but dead for legalizing same-sex marriage or even civil unions this year, gay rights advocates scored a small victory yesterday in their piece-by-piece pursuit of legal rights now denied gay and lesbian couples in Maryland.
Same-sex couples would have the same rights as spouses to make hospital and nursing-home visits, end-of-life choices and other medical decisions under a bill that won preliminary passage in the Senate.
The change to medical decision-making, opposed by most Republican senators, is one of three bills pending in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly that would create a legal, domestic-partner relationship to give gay couples limited benefits of marriage. Rights to joint property ownership and inheritance also have a good shot at passage before the legislature adjourns next month.
The incremental measures, some of which were vetoed by former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), are likely to be signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and would represent a step forward for thousands of gay couples in Maryland. But it is increasingly clear that the votes are not there to legalize same-sex marriage, now the law in Massachusetts, or civil unions, which are legal in six states.
Maryland's legislature -- in particular, its influential Black Caucus -- remains deeply divided on gay rights, with social conservatives uncomfortable about changes they say would denigrate traditional marriage between a man and woman.
"I can understand and appreciate those that want this to be resolved today. . . . But this is a pragmatic approach," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery), who did not sign on to the same-sex marriage bill but is the lead sponsor of the medical decision-making bill.
Conservative Republicans who are trying again this year to write Maryland's 34-year ban on gay marriage into the state constitution are also unlikely to prevail. But same-sex marriage advocates who have been working the halls of the State House in Annapolis since the fall say they feel deflated.
"It's disappointing that people couldn't see beyond their religious concerns and view the civil equality angle to all of this," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), one of the General Assembly's four openly gay members and the only one in the Senate.
Religious objections proved the determining factor in a key, evenly split Senate committee that a marriage or civil unions bill needed to clear before getting to the floor. The swing vote was C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat who was lobbied intensely by gay rights advocates and lawmakers to pass a civil unions bill. But Muse, pastor of an evangelical Christian church in Upper Marlboro, said he ultimately was bound by biblical teachings that say only men and women should marry. The bills are likely to languish without a vote.
Muse said in recent weeks that he was struggling with whether to support some form of domestic partnerships for gay couples. But yesterday, he voted for several Republican-sponsored changes to the medical decision-making measure, including one that would have barred public schools from teaching about domestic partnerships. The changes were rejected. Muse said he is unsure how he will vote when the Senate takes a final vote on the bill next week.
"I'm not sure I will support it," he said. He said his constituents in Prince George's, a majority black county where churches are an influential part of community life, are "somewhere in between wanting certain rights that should be afforded to all and making clear that they're not for redefining the definition of marriage."
Gay rights advocates have more support in the House of Delegates, which has held off voting on marriage and civil union bills until the Senate acted.
"If the House did take a vote, [same-sex marriage] would pass," said Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Prince George's), the lead sponsor of the House bill.
Many lawmakers remain uncomfortable with the issue, though. On the Senate floor yesterday, Republicans said that allowing an unmarried couple who have been partners only a short time to trump parents or children in crucial life-and-death medical decisions struck them as irresponsible.
"How far are we going to go?" asked Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick). "Let's not put domestic partners above the family. Let's put them after."
Some advocates are taking the long view.
"The Senate is a microcosm of society," said Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a co-sponsor of the bill. "I think our views are moving in the right direction."
He cited Madaleno as a presence who has dispelled many myths. Madaleno and his partner have two children.
"Rich is a perfectly normal and sometimes boring guy who likes to talk a lot about the minutiae of the state budget," Raskin said. "He dispels a lot of people's prejudices and anxieties about how gay people live."