MIKE DeBONIS

Md.'s wait for gay marriage near an end

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Friday, January 7, 2011

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.


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