By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; 4:28 PM
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) said Wednesday that effective immediately, and until challenged in court, the state recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and that Maryland agencies should begin affording out-of-state gay couples all the rights they have been awarded in other places.
"State agencies in Maryland will recognize out-of-state gay marriages as of right now," Gansler said at a news conference explaining the effect of a long-awaited opinion he released Wednesday morning.
Earlier in the day, most lawmakers in the state capital had interpreted Gansler's opinion as having not gone that far. But Gansler said that in his role as the chief legal adviser to all executive branch agencies, his opinion now dictates how state agencies should respond when same-sex couples from elsewhere request benefits and legal protections they would have been awarded in the four New England states and Iowa, where same-sex marriages are legal.
The issue will soon become far less abstract in Maryland, with the District expected to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples this spring.
"It's not that foreign of a concept, I mean, it's just people, it's just like any other heterosexual couples," Gansler said. "However a heterosexual couple is treated that was validly married in Maryland or elsewhere, [a same-sex couple] will be treated like that here in Maryland, unless and until a court or the legislature decides differently."
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) responded to Gansler's opinion with a statement saying: "We will be guided by the Attorney General's thorough analysis and legal advice on this matter. . . . I expect all state agencies to work with the Attorney General's office to ensure compliance with the law."
Many in Annapolis on Wednesday afternoon were still struggling with both the political and policy implications of Gansler's decision, and even advocates said that they expected lengthy court battles and discussions with O'Malley's administration would be needed to further refine what Maryland may offer same-sex couples from elsewhere.
Several legal scholars said the opinion appeared designed to spur court action, and Gansler acknowledged that he expects his opinion will be challenged quickly. He said it will likely be up to the state's highest court to issue a final verdict, but he said he believes his opinion now provides a road map that didn't exist for same-sex couples to win in court.
"People have always had the ability to sue and say I was married in Iowa, I was married in Connecticut, I was married in Massachusetts and I'm being denied those rights here in Maryland," Gansler said. "They could have always sued. I assume this will give them a floor plan and a map on how to do it because I think the law is pretty clear."
Jana Singer, a University of Maryland law professor who was one of 60 lawyers across the state who filed briefs to Gansler as he drafted the opinion over the past year, said that the opinion should affect a large swath of legal, health and other benefits for same-sex couples who reside in or visit Maryland.
The opinion would likely mean same-sex spouses of Maryland employees would be eligible for the same health benefits as heterosexual couples, she said. Same-sex couples would also be given legal rights, such as the ability to sue for wrongful death of a same-sex spouse.
Gansler said his opinion would not affect same-sex couples' taxes, which are governed by federal law.
Under O'Malley's administration, Maryland has significantly expanded benefits to couples who register as domestic partners, but Singer said same-sex couples married elsewhere would no longer have to go through that step to get many of the same protections.
Del. Don Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel) said he was convinced Gansler's opinion would be overturned by courts and promised to bring articles of impeachment against the attorney general for trying to usurp Maryland law, which strictly defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.