After Maryland's highest court upheld the state's ban on same-sex marriage last September, advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community changed their focus to lobbying the General Assembly. They proposed the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would change the state law specifying that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
These advocates have their work cut out for them. Last week, a Sun poll showed that only 19 percent of likely Maryland voters support same-sex marriage, compared to 39 percent who favor civil unions instead and 31 percent who oppose any legalization of same-sex unions. This came days after the activists' champion in the legislature, Prince George's Democratic Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, died unexpectedly, putting their Senate lobbying on hold last week and adding another blow to the proposal.
Opponents have repeatedly tried to write a ban on gay marriage into the state Constitution, and the Maryland Catholic Conference issued an opposition statement earlier this month. Gov. Martin O'Malley thinks that a law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples would be more practical and consensus-building than a marriage law, said his spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese.
But advocates remain optimistic -- and busy. In addition to the same-sex marriage bill, which could be introduced this week, legislation is being proposed that would combat discrimination against transgender individuals and give gay couples a slew of rights, including the right to add domestic partners to housing deeds tax-free and to include domestic partners in medical decision-making.
The legislation is being backed by Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group. The group includes a registered lobbying organization, an anti-discrimination education and community outreach foundation and a political action committee to endorse candidates and influence elections.
Carrie Evans, director of policy and planning for Equality Maryland, discussed the proposals and their chances in this year's legislative session in an interview last week. Here is an edited transcript: What's happening now with the same-sex marriage bill?
The irony is, we were supposed to be having a press conference last Tuesday where Senator Britt was introducing the bill, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. So we're still devastated ... and we are regrouping. ... It will be very hard for the community of Equality Maryland to absorb this loss and move on, but we're going to. Senator Britt would want it no other way. What would the same-sex marriage bill do?
Right now, the Maryland law says marriage is between a man and woman, and it opens it up to two people who aren't prohibited -- you know, like grandmothers and your sister and brother. We can do this 400 times and piece together all of the protections that come with marriage, or we can expand marriage to two people who qualify for a marriage license. You can't get a more simple bill than that, with no fiscal note attached. In fact, a report just came out by the Williams Institute last month that shows the state would actually take in a lot more money, because they would get all the sales taxes from the gay weddings.
There's a handful of people on either side that have their convictions, but most of the people, they're not sure of how they feel about it. They think somehow it would compel their church to do something that it doesn't want to. That's why it's important to us to have "religious freedom" in the title, because it explicitly underscores that churches and religious folks will be able to perform and honor marriages just as they do now, if same-sex couples and their relationships are not consistent with the faith of that church. What we're asking for is the marriage license and all of the civil protections that come from that. Why not just propose a civil union bill?
It's been very problematic in the states that have had civil unions. Actually implementing a separate system for a group of people is expensive, first of all, and it's confusing to the people who have to administer it. Civil unions were devised to basically withhold marriage from same-sex couples. There are 1,138 federal rights and responsibilities of marriage, then 400-plus state rights. Civil unions don't even touch any of those federal protections. And the state rights -- you leave the state and you're legal strangers again. So a couple leaves Vermont, they go to New York, well, they're legal strangers, they're nothing to anybody. I'm married, I go to New York, and I'm still married. That's a big one because we're a fluid country. We're moving, we're traveling, we're visiting, we're going overseas.
Medical insurance has been a humungous problem with civil unions because a lot of larger companies are governed by federal law for their medical insurance. Couples are constantly having to fight for equality under civil unions because it just has not been implemented with the same level of simplicity that I think people thought it would be.
There is a symbolic part of marriage as well. Not only is it the institution that we have currently in the state to provide all of these protections, it's something that is recognized and honored, and to say you're married, and for your children to say, "My parents are married," is an important thing. What do you think of the poll results?
These are really great numbers because what, in essence, they boil down to is that 70 percent of the population is in a place to either support or consider supporting equality for same-sex couples. With only 31 percent opposing, that's the best number of all. That's just one-third of the state we have to work with, and there aren't going to be people who move from supporting to not supporting same-sex marriage.
Thirty-nine percent of the people have taken the first step towards thinking about equality for same-sex couples. Those are the people we can work with to explain why other forms of legalization are not equal. It's just a matter of education. Once they hear that civil unions have all these problems with insurance and everything, they'll move with us. Do you think same-sex marriage can be achieved this session?
It's hard to know. It is definitely an uphill battle. As we've seen since the court decision in September, the governor and legislative leaders are not very enthusiastic about this legislation, so that is a hurdle.
The number of co-sponsors that a bill gets very much creates a momentum behind that piece of legislation, and to have 40 House members stand up and say, "I put my name to this bill and this is something I believe in," certainly adds momentum to it.
The Senate certainly is a more conservative body. The loss of Senator Britt is the loss of the champion of this bill. There are other people who feel very strongly about this bill who are going to be great advocates, but she was in a very unique position to advocate for this bill. Her credentials as a civil rights leader were unparalleled. She was just a persistent, diligent advocate for a lot of different disenfranchised people, including our community.
There may be some people who are going to put aside whatever reservations they have and say, "You know what? Senator Britt believed in this, and I'm going to believe in this and I'm going to support this measure." What other bills are you backing?
The transgender anti-discrimination bill is, again, a very simple bill. Right now, we have anti-discrimination laws in the state that protect based on the normal categories -- sexual orientation, race, religion -- and this adds gender identity and expression to those protections.
Gender is what you're born as. A person's gender identity is how they feel inside and sometimes that doesn't match up with their genitalia. Expression refers to a butch woman or a femme man, who may or may not be gay, but we know gets discriminated against because they're not conforming to the gender stereotype, and so they suffer discrimination because of that. All of these people could fall under the term "transgender."
There's going to be a few other bills that are being introduced by some folks to deal with some really pressing needs in the community. Two particular things that were on our 2005 agenda were vetoed by Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich. Now that we have a new administration, those are going to be reintroduced. One of the bills is recordation and transfer taxes. Right now I can add my spouse, I can add my brother, my sister, my mother, my dad (to the title or deed of my home) without any kinds of fees or taxes. ... So this bill simply adds domestic partners into that list of family members.
And then another variation of a bill that, in essence, extends rights to domestic partners in medical decisions and emergency situations: hospital visitation, riding in an ambulance, funeral decisions, the right to share a nursing home room.
And then another thing that we kept hearing from lawyers that deal with same-sex couples was that people who inherited the house from a partner who died were hit with inheritance taxes that were unbelievable, particularly in places like Montgomery County and Howard County, where property values went up so much. Just like the recordation and transfer tax, there's this whole list of family members who are exempt from paying that inheritance tax when they inherit the home, and so we're adding domestic partners to that list.