Maryland to recognize gay marriages from other places

By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) declared Wednesday that Maryland will recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and that its agencies should immediately begin affording gay married couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

With Gansler's decision, Maryland in effect joins the District and a handful of states including New York that recognize same-sex marriages performed in four New England states and Iowa. The District also has its own measure legalizing those unions that is expected to take effect next week.

Gansler, a supporter of legalizing same-sex marriages, was asserting his authority as the top legal adviser to state agencies to answer a question that experts say had been left unclear by Maryland law. He was responding to a legislator's request that he issue an opinion.

The attorney general's opinion unleashed a torrent of emotions from both gay rights advocates and those opposed to same-sex marriage, adding a potentially explosive issue to election-year politics in Maryland. It is likely to be quickly challenged in court, Gansler acknowledged.

Republicans, socially conservative Democrats and several African American lawmakers from Prince George's County to Baltimore blasted the decision. One Republican lawmaker vowed to bring articles of impeachment against Gansler for trying to usurp Maryland law, which defines marriage within the state as between a man and a woman. The Roman Catholic archbishops of Washington and Baltimore and the bishop of Wilmington said in a statement that they take "strong exception" to the decision.

Gay and lesbian groups said the decision put the state on track toward legalizing same-sex marriage and would embolden them to push more strongly for pending legislation to do so. Similar measures have died in the legislature in years past.

The exact practical implications of Gansler's decision were unclear. David Rocah, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he thought that the opinion could have "hundreds, if not thousands," of implications for same-sex couples married elsewhere. Rocah said the opinion could ensure same-sex spouses' rights to health benefits, inheritances, child support and even divorce.

Gansler said state laws have more than 1,000 references to spouses or marriage.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has consistently voiced support for civil unions but stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage, said his administration would be "guided" by Gansler's legal opinion. Under O'Malley, Maryland has significantly expanded benefits to couples who register as domestic partners, but under Gansler's opinion, same-sex couples married elsewhere would no longer have to go through that step to get many of the same protections.

"I am confident that the Attorney General and his office will provide all necessary advice to state agencies on how to comply with the law," O'Malley said in a statement. "I expect all state agencies to work with the Attorney General's office to ensure compliance with the law."

Gansler's opinion answered a question about recognizing same-sex marriage that was posed last spring by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., an openly gay Montgomery County Democrat.

In a roughly 50-page opinion that took nine months to compose, Gansler says the starting principle in state law is that a marriage that is valid in the place of celebration remains valid in Maryland. And even though the state narrowly defines marriages performed within its borders as between a man and a woman, Gansler says, such restrictions don't amount to a strong public policy argument that would override recognizing unions from elsewhere.

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