Wait for same-sex marriage in Maryland could be nearing an end

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 10:04 PM

Same-sex marriage is, if nothing else, a waiting game.

Consider the position the District found itself in for years. A majority of D.C. Council members might have voted through a gay marriage bill a decade ago, but a Republican Congress would have crushed the effort. But piece by piece, council members laid the groundwork, and last year, the city's gay couples could marry at last.

Now it appears that the wait in Maryland is nearing an end. The State House's Democratic majorities have been blocked by Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr., who has opposed gay marriage.

But not much longer. "We really feel like 2011 is the year," said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's most prominent gay-marriage lobby group.

Miller has given his blessing to a committee realignment that all but ensures that a gay-marriage measure will make it to the Senate floor during this year's session, which starts Wednesday - and presumably onto the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who pledged last year to sign it.

Same-sex marriage, for all intents and purposes, already exists in Maryland. Last year, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued an opinion that recognized out-of-state gay unions - legitimizing "MARC marriages," where gay and lesbian couples can simply hop a train down to the District to get hitched before returning home with all the state rights and privileges afforded a married straight couple.

In other words, the debate at this point boils down to whether lawmakers want gay Maryland residents to spend their wedding budgets at home or in the District.

But with a coterie of moderate Democrats and vocal Republicans opposing any endorsement of gay rights, same-sex marriage isn't quite a done deal. This week, a complication entered the picture, with the Senate's minority leader announcing that he plans to introduce a bill that would create civil unions for gay and straight couples.

"My goal is to have complete equality," Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) said. In a sense.

If he had his druthers, Kittleman would do away with civil marriage altogether, he said, making it a purely religious institution. But that would have left straight couples high and dry vis-a-vis the federal government, which wouldn't extend the benefits of marriage to those who are merely united civilly.

Kittleman - the son of civil-rights pioneer Robert Kittleman, who was for a time chairman of the Howard County NAACP - said he's trying to find common ground and wouldn't rule out voting for some version of a gay-marriage bill. "I was raised that civil rights are important and human rights are important," Kittleman said. "I think it does good for the body . . . to have a good debate, a spirited debate."

But civil unions are a non-starter among Democrats who support gay rights. They are intrigued by Kittleman's embrace of secularism but see no need for half-measures.

"Let's have that discussion," Meneses-Sheets said. "But in the meantime, we have to provide access to the institution we do have."

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery), the openly gay Democrat leading the marriage push, says Kittleman's gambit "shows just how far the debate has swung in Maryland" and is "a sign that people on both sides know that something is passing this year."

And civil unions aren't likely to gain traction among Republicans more conservative than Kittleman, who have voted against a succession of bills expanding gay rights.

Even the state Republican Party's new chairman, former senator Alex X. Mooney, takes a dim view of the prospects of derailing a marriage bill. He has a particularly ironic role in the gay-marriage debate. As the chamber's most outspoken social conservative during his 12-year tenure, it was his ouster from his Frederick seat that led to the committee shuffle that could allow a gay-marriage bill to pass.

"Elections have consequences," he noted dryly.

Mooney, in the position of speaking for a state party he is hoping to turn in a more conservative direction, is placing his hopes in voters, who could overturn the bill on the 2012 ballot.

But in Maryland, opponents would have to collect more than 55,000 valid signatures statewide within a matter of months to put the issue to voters. It's a tall order in a state where organizers couldn't muster enough signatures to challenge the addition of sexual orientation to the human rights law a decade ago.

Mooney sees a referendum push as a way to invigorate moribund state Republicans. "I just think we need to do it on something once to show Marylanders it can be done," he said.

Another Republican operative put it differently: "When you see a freight train, you don't stand in the way of it."

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