Supporters of same-sex marriage in Md. unlikely to settle for civil unions

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 10:23 PM

It's too early to know whether the Maryland General Assembly will pass a bill in coming weeks to allow same-sex couples to marry. But this much is clear: There isn't much interest among lawmakers in compromising by allowing civil unions.

In a handful of states - including Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire - a parallel system of civil unions was adopted before full same-sex marriage rights were granted.

The governor of Illinois signed a civil unions bill last month, and one could land on the governor's desk in Hawaii this week. In both cases, supporters say the embrace of civil unions reflected a larger comfort level among the public.

But in Maryland - where a high-profile hearing on same-sex marriage is scheduled Tuesday - there is no indication that things are headed in that direction.

"It's a non-starter," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), an openly gay lawmaker whose views were echoed by other leading proponents of a marriage bill. "There's just no reason to create another institution when you already have one that works so well. We'd rather have nothing, and try again later, than settle for second-class citizenship."

Five states and the District grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The District is the only jurisdiction that chose to do so without first adopting civil unions or being strongly nudged by a court to allow marriages. However, a comprehensive domestic partnership law had been on the books in the District for years before the issuance of marriage licenses began last March.

Gay rights advocates in Maryland, which affords same-sex partners more limited rights, including ones involving hospital visitations and funeral arrangements, cite both philosophical and pragmatic arguments for this year's push for full marriage rights.

In one sense, same-sex marriage is a far simpler proposition: The bill merely lifts a requirement in Maryland law that marriage must be between a man and a woman. By contrast, civil union legislation must spell out which of the myriad rights that come with marriage are part of the new scheme. A court ruling a few years ago referenced 339 Maryland laws that confer benefits on married couples.

But perhaps the most important justification advocates offer for seeking full marriage rights this year is that they think they can get the votes.

Despite its liberal reputation, Maryland has moved more cautiously on social issues than some blue states, in part because of the strong influence of the Catholic Church and African American congregations that are conservative on some issues.

But as a result of turnover in last fall's elections, there are more legislators than ever sympathetic to gay rights. Moreover, shifts in committee assignments in the Senate - the chamber where gay marriage has been a tougher sell - mean the bill is all but certain to make it to the floor this year for a full airing.

A Washington Post survey last week found 20 senators committed to voting for the bill, which needs 24 votes for passage. Six senators said they were undecided.

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