A new tack for gay rights

The Baltimore Sun

Concerned that they won't be able to muster the votes for a comprehensive bill on same-sex unions this year, state lawmakers are considering a tactical shift toward legislation that would grant a number of rights to gay and lesbian couples but stop short of full-fledged marriage or civil unions.

Such a bill would create a legal relationship for gay and lesbian couples that confers as many as possible of the several hundred rights granted to married couples under state law.

"We're looking at a smaller basket of rights and benefits," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We champions of gay and lesbian couples prefer civil marriage. We'll start with all those rights and benefits and work our way down."

The same-sex marriage debate has divided the State House, hampering efforts to build a coalition behind one legislative approach. Many lawmakers say they are uncomfortable with equating same-sex relationships with marriage but that they could back a piecemeal approach to grant some protections to those couples.

A gamut of measures has been introduced this year, including attempts at legalizing gay marriage; banning same-sex marriage in the state Constitution; abolishing marriage and replacing the institution with domestic partnerships for straight and gay couples; and creating civil unions.

The alternative proposal is being drafted largely as a compromise to win over Sen. C. Anthony Muse, advocates said. The evangelical minister holds a key position on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and could be the deciding vote to move a bill out of committee.

Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, opposes same-sex marriage but had considered supporting civil unions. He said yesterday that while civil unions are "off the table," he's concerned about providing equal rights. He said a more narrowly tailored bill could have the support in the full Senate to pass.

A broader struggle

Muse has been lobbied by a number of lawmakers. He also has been meeting with members of the clergy across denominations to discuss the issue, though he emphasized that grappling with same-sex unions is not confined to religious people.

"This is not just a church issue; people outside of the church struggle with it," he said.

The Rev. John Crestwell of the Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church said he has sought a meeting with Muse, whose Ark of Safety Christian Church is located a few miles from his own parish. Crestwell supports same-sex marriage but sees civil unions as a starting point.

"Civil unions can be argued from a secular policy point of view," Crestwell said. "Marriage is caught up in biblical language."

Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's leading gay and lesbian rights organization, said his group supports legislation that grants legal protections for same-sex couples but that an alternative status for them would create policy and implementation problems for the state. He added that his group would continue to lobby for full marriage rights.

"We're never going to stop talking about marriage or fighting for marriage because that's the only way to end discrimination," Furmansky said. "Muse holds the key to any comprehensive legislation for same-sex couples being debated on the floor of the Senate. Without his support, same-sex couples will be left out in the cold and will be forced to patch rights together one at a time."

Gay-rights activists point to New Jersey, which approved civil unions starting last year, as a lesson in how civil unions can fail. A review commission recently concluded that many employers still don't recognize their workers' civil unions, saying they are guided by federal law, and that civil unions can be viewed as having second-class status because the legal implications are often not understood by the public.

The Maryland legislature is tackling same-sex unions after the state's highest court upheld last year a 34-year-old state law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

An alternative bill

Some lawmakers contend that civil unions are tantamount to marriage and would tarnish the institution. Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said he would not support legislation that grants rights based on sexual orientation, though he would consider some rights for unmarried couples regardless of gender. He noted that two elderly people might be in a committed relationship but decide not to marry.

"If we're going to start down this path, we need to make sure we're making a comprehensive policy that affects everyone," he said. "Why would we carve out rights for one single group if we're concerned about equal rights."

Lawmakers expect that the alternative measure would combine three existing bills conferring some rights and benefits, such as hospital visitation rights, to same-sex couples into one bill. They plan to build upon that with other protections.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, in its opinion, identified nearly 340 Maryland laws that provide for benefits and rights conditioned on marital status.

Equality Maryland, in a separate report, has identified 425 Maryland statutes that rely on the definition of marriage or a legally recognized family relationship, including the right to make burial decisions, mutual responsibility for debts, the right to file joint income taxes and protections for children.

Seeking equality

It is unclear which rights and benefits would be included in the alternative bill and what the same-sex relationships would be called, if anything. Raskin said some suggestions that have been floated are domestic or household partners and mutual or reciprocal beneficiaries.

He added that it would be impractical to write a bill that listed all rights and benefits of marriage. As a supporter of same-sex marriage who has taken a lead in crafting the compromise, Raskin said he would prefer a straightforward measure stating that the rights and obligations that apply to married individuals also apply to same-sex couples.

"There's a simplicity to equality," he said.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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