Kittleman gets it right on principle and politics

Sen. Allan Kittleman insists that he was not forced out of his job as Senate minority leader because of his proposal to create civil unions for gay and straight people alike. No vote was taken in the Republican caucus, and no one asked him to leave. But those mitigating details don't paper over the fact that the other members of the caucus were not comfortable with having a leader who was an outspoken advocate for ensuring equal rights for all. A week after the GOP caucus in the Senate shrank from 14 to 12, and at a time when increasing numbers of Marylanders support ending the state's decades-old ban on gay marriage, holding on to prejudice as a litmus test seems like a poor avenue to return to relevance.

Mr. Kittleman's proposal was an interesting attempt to bridge the divide on what seemed like an intractable issue. He says he comes to the debate from a fundamental belief that the law should treat everyone the same way but also as someone who hears the objections (principally, religious) of those who oppose gay marriage. His idea was to get the state out of the marriage business entirely. Straight couples and gay couples alike could formalize their relationship in the eyes of the state through a civil union (much like getting married at the courthouse now), and that would give them all the legal rights and benefits that marriage does now. If couples (gay or straight) wanted to get married in addition, that was up to them and their minister, priest or rabbi, but the state would have no role.

In theory that makes sense, but in practice there are snags. Primarily, such an action could run afoul of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which passed on a bipartisan basis and was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. But it also raises the question of what would happen to all of the couples who were married under the old law; would all of their marriages be converted to civil unions, or would there be a class of people whose marriages were grandfathered in? Neither option is particularly appealing. Furthermore, the state has recognized marriage for centuries. Gay couples are right to wonder why the institution would have to be changed on their account.

Furthermore, the religious objection that Mr. Kittleman was trying to accommodate is specious. Legalizing gay marriage would require the state to recognize same-sex unions, not for any particular church to. As it stands, congregations may choose not to perform or recognize marriages for all sorts of reasons, such as an unwillingness to marry interfaith couples. The fact that the state recognizes no such restrictions doesn't change that.

Gay rights groups have been cool to Mr. Kittleman's proposal, preferring instead to push for full gay marriage. That makes sense, as it appears they have may have the votes to get such a bill through the legislature this year. But it is important nonetheless to recognize that Mr. Kittleman differs with gay rights groups on the question of tactics, not the fundamental goal.

Mr. Kittleman has not actually introduced his legislation, and he's not sure he will. In order to accommodate the strictures of the Defense of Marriage Act, he would need to create a system in which civil unions are just one option for straight couples to gain legal recognition for their relationships — but the only option for gay couples. That, he recognizes, is not true equality.

But regardless of whether he actually introduces gay rights legislation this year, he has made an important contribution to the move toward equal rights. He willingly gave up a leadership role so that he would not feel constrained in speaking out on gay rights, showing that he considers the issue more important than the power (admittedly, modest) that his position conferred. That was laudable; more interesting will be what he does if and when a simple repeal of the ban on gay marriage reaches the floor of the legislature. That will be a true test of how willing he is to stick to his principles in the face of pressure from his own political party.

And that pressure is likely to be intense. The state GOP recently elected former state Sen. Alex Mooney as its new chairman on a platform that includes taking more outspoken conservative stands on social issues. Mr. Kittleman could face primary challenges and other forms of opposition from his party. Ultimately, that would be to their discredit — and disadvantage. Mr. Kittleman's principle may not be good politics at the Republican Central Committee meeting, but it is among the broader electorate. The socially liberal, fiscally conservative combination is one that Maryland voters have found appealing in the past. If Mr. Kittleman's fellow Republicans want the Maryland voters who soundly rejected their party in November to give them a second look, they would do well to follow his lead.