By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; B01
Same-sex couples and gay rights advocates in Maryland rejoiced Thursday, a day after Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) said the state will recognize same-sex marriages from other places and ordered state agencies to immediately begin giving gay married couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
"When I looked at the newspaper headline this morning, I was just stunned," said Tibby Middleton, 71, who lives in Frederick with Barbara Kenny, her partner of 44 years. "I was very moved by it, really. I never thought I would live in any place where I would be treated with dignity and respect."
The announcement comes just a week before the District will begin allowing same-sex marriages, making it possible for Maryland couples to marry locally and be afforded benefits in their home state. Some conservative lawmakers and other opponents of the change are vowing to challenge it, saying Gansler overstepped his authority because he supports legalizing same-sex unions.
Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, a gay rights organization, called the decision "a big step forward" and said it has caused a flood of response.
"People have been calling and e-mailing all day; folks are very excited," she said. "Folks are saying, 'What do I do next? What does this mean for me?' "
Maryland has greatly expanded benefits for domestic partners under Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), but many legal and health-care benefits still do not match those afforded heterosexual couples.
Many couples said they wonder in particular whether Gansler's decision will change their tax filing status. Meneses-Sheets said that although the federal status would not change, legal experts are looking into whether it could change on the state level.
Some said the decision was not a surprise, because the attorney general had been working on it since last May, when Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is gay, requested the change.
"We've been expecting it for months, but we didn't know if it was going to be positive or negative," said playwright Pat Montley, 67, of Lutherville, who married psychology professor Sally Wall, 63, in Canada in 2004 after 25 years together.
It is not clear how long it will take for state agencies to comply, Meneses-Sheets said. "Each government agency is going to have to look at the laws," she said, adding that she expects many private companies to follow suit, as has happened in other states that have recognized same-sex unions.
Maryland law defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. It is one of only six states in which laws do not clearly spell out whether to recognize same-sex marriages from elsewhere; 39 states do not acknowledge such unions.
Some are hailing Wednesday's announcement as a step toward allowing same-sex weddings to take place in Maryland. "We feel that there will be some movement in that direction," said Donna Martin of Baltimore, 66, a pastor who married retired carpenter Mary Ross, 69, in California two years ago.
The couple said Gansler's decision will give them additional rights to inheritance and property -- as well as less tangible benefits.
"It just gives the relationship the dignity it deserves," Ross said. "You just feel more like a first-class citizen."
Opponents in the legislature, including Republicans, socially conservative Democrats and several African American lawmakers, blasted the decision. Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Anne Arundel) said he is preparing impeachment charges against Gansler for "violating his oath."
"He has usurped the authority of the legislature," Dwyer said Thursday, adding that Gansler should have deferred to an attorney general's declaration in 2004 that the state would not recognize same-sex unions. Dwyer said Gansler should have been ineligible to make the decision because he testified in 2008 to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of recognizing such unions.
At a news conference Wednesday, Gansler said he could not defer to the 2004 decision because so much legislation on same-sex marriage has been created or changed since then. "We spent an enormous amount of time on this opinion because it's really new ground," he said.
Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), another openly gay member of the General Assembly, said she planned to first test the decision by taking her partner, Deborah, whom she married in California, to a state human resources office to have her designation changed from "beneficiary" to "spouse" on her state pension. Mizeur said that should she die, the change could have tax benefits for her spouse.
Several other lawmakers, including some socially conservative Democrats, are still seething about the decision.
"I am still stunned that he would issue such an amorphous, confusing opinion. It's a bucket of warm spit," said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who earlier this month attempted to persuade a House committee to support a bill that would explicitly ban the recognition of same-sex marriages from elsewhere. "This opinion has no standing in law, will be overturned, and gives false hope to the gay and lesbian lobbyist community."
Middleton said she and Kenny are now considering marrying in the District.
"People would say to us, 'Go to Canada, or one of the other states,' and we said, 'Well, what is the point' " if the marriage would not be recognized?
Now that they can marry near their home, with their friends and colleagues in attendance, "there's a real possibility that we will do that."
If they do, she vowed of the wedding, "It will be an affair. It will be an affair."
Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.