At least two Marylanders were among thousands of same-sex couples married in marathon civil ceremonies in San Francisco that accelerated the debate on gay marriage in California and potentially set up a legal showdown.
Since Feb. 12, San Francisco city officials have officiated at 2,821 marriage ceremonies of gay and lesbian couples from 23 states, issuing same-sex marriage licenses in a direct challenge to California law. Opponents have sued, seeking to have the marriages declared illegal, but so far judges have not moved to block the ceremonies.
"We have had at least two from Maryland," Pierre Barolette, a spokesman for the San Francisco assessor-recorder's office, said in a telephone interview last night. He refused to identify the participants, saying marriage licenses are not subject to public inspection in California.
University of Baltimore family law professor Barbara A. Babb said that when those Maryland newlyweds return from San Francisco, they could demand recognition of their marriages. Generally, contracts in one state are automatically recognized in all states, though hot button issues such as gay marriage are among exceptions to the rule.
"They certainly could litigate, they could challenge the constitutionality of the statute as to whether it denies them equal protection or denial of the fundamental right to marry," said Babb.
"The relevance for Maryland is, we don't have a civil union statute, we don't have a gay marriage statute, and it's going to have to be addressed by most if not all of the states now because couples are going to want their states to recognize their rights," Babb added.
The California ceremonies, coming in the wake of a recent ruling by Massachusetts' high court that its state constitution extends to homosexuals the same marriage rights enjoyed by heterosexuals, have inflamed passions on both sides of a debate that promises to become a prominent issue in the fall presidential elections.
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush have expressed disapproval. The first lady, in an interview with the Associated Press yesterday, called gay marriages "a very, very shocking issue."
Separately, Bush yesterday met at the White House with 13 Roman Catholic leaders opposed to gay marriage. Afterward, he said, "I'm troubled by what I've seen" in Boston and San Francisco, but he declined to say if he would support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, as conservative supporters expect him to do.
"I have watched carefully what's happening in San Francisco, where licenses were being issued, even though the law states otherwise," Bush said. "I have consistently stated that I'll support a law to protect marriage between a man and a woman. Obviously these events are influencing my decision."
Some lawmakers in Maryland are also looking for ways to preserve marriage as a man-woman only institution, and are considering an array of bills that could impact gay couples in Maryland - including those who traveled to California to be married.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he firmly opposes gay marriage and would veto any legislation to legalize it.
No bill has been submitted to the state legislature this year to legalize gay marriage, but experts say supporters could achieve the same outcome through the judiciary, as was done in Massachusetts.
Though individual couples could pursue a legal challenge, at least one gay advocate says he knows of no effort to seek the right to marry in Maryland.
"There are no plans to bring a lawsuit in Maryland at this time," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay-rights organization.
His group is instead focused on bills before the General Assembly that would extend some specific benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, such as the right to share in making health care decisions for partners. Also, they are seeking hate crime protection and to make anti-discrimination a requirement for companies to obtain state contracts.
"Issues of daily life," said Baltimore Sen. Maggie McIntosh, one of two openly gay members of the state legislature.
The Medical Decision Making Act of 2004, sponsored by Del. John A. Hurson, a Democrat from Montgomery County, would effectively create a registry of domestic partners. Those eligible for the registry would include heterosexual seniors who live together as well as gay couples of any age.
Once registered with the state's health agency, the partners would have many of the same legal rights as married persons regarding serious medical decisions.
On the other side of the issue is Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee that is considering two bills relating to same-sex marriages.
Haines said state lawmakers need to act swiftly to assure that gay relationships recognized elsewhere are not even tacitly approved in Maryland.
"What I'm concerned about is a couple would get married, say in Massachusetts now, and those two people would come here to become residents here and expect us to treat them to the benefits of a married couple. I don't want to recognize that they got married," said Haines.
Haines' legislation would amend family law in Maryland to define same-sex marriages as against the public policy of the state and, even if legally obtained in other states or countries, make them invalid here.
Del. Charles R. Boutin, a Republican from Cecil and Harford counties, has sponsored another bill that would amend Maryland's constitution to establish only marriage between a man and a woman as valid in the state. Then the matter would be put before voters in the next general election.
"I know what they're doing in San Francisco," Boutin said last night. "It's not my purview to predict how that's going to be handled. I'm focused only on which way Maryland is going to go on this issue. I want a decision made by the people."
At least 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments barring the recognition of gay marriage.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.