Domestic partner bill advances

The Baltimore Sun

In a move to bolster gay rights, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would allow domestic partners to make medical and funeral decisions for each other, share a nursing home room and visit at their hospital bedsides.

With efforts to grant same-sex couples the same legal recognition as married couples sputtering in the General Assembly, legislation to grant rights piecemeal might be the best hope for gay-rights advocates this year. The legislature also is considering measures to exempt domestic partners from inheritance and certain real estate taxes, which proponents say are needed if broader protections are not enacted.

"Two people who are in a relationship with each other and but for the fact that they are not married have a lot of barriers in front of them," said Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure on medical decisions. "A lot of people can empathize and understand that."

While the domestic partner bills would apply to gay and straight couples, opponents said the measures are back-door attempts to pave the way for legalizing same-sex unions. They contend that Maryland should abide by a recent ruling from the state's highest court that upheld a 34-year-old statute defining marriage as between a man and woman.

A final vote on the medical-rights bill is expected in the Senate next week; that chamber has not voted on tax-related legislation. All three domestic partner bills are likely to pass in the House of Delegates, said Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Gov. Martin O'Malley would sign the medical-rights bill if it reached his desk, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday. But the Democratic governor, who has been struggling with budget shortfalls, is still reviewing the tax legislation because it would affect state revenues.

According to the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, the fiscal impact of the tax bills could not be reliably estimated. One of those bills would allow domestic partners to avoid paying recordation and transfer taxes when adding each other to home deeds.

The General Assembly previously passed similar versions of two domestic partner bills in 2005, but the measures were vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Under the medical-rights bill, domestic partners must be at least 18 years old and be able to provide an affidavit attesting to their relationship plus two pieces of proof, such as joint checking accounts, mortgages or car leases; coverage on health insurance policies or the designation as a primary beneficiary in a will.

Proponents said domestic partners should not be denied the ability to be treated as family during times of medical crisis and death. Seniors groups, including the Alzheimer's Association, back the bill, and pointed out that many elderly heterosexual couples decide not to marry for emotional or financial reasons.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, pushed for the affidavit requirement, arguing that the partnerships are too loosely defined. Garagiola, who had been concerned the change would create an unnecessary obstacle, decided to allow it yesterday, saying that having another legal document cements the legitimacy of these relationships.

Republicans failed to amend the bill in other ways. One such proposal would have exempted hospitals owned by religious institutions, and another aimed to ensure that domestic partnerships are not taught in public schools. Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, crossed party lines to vote for those amendments.

Muse has emerged as a key figure in the gay rights debate. While opposed to same-sex marriage, he said last month that he had not staked out a position on civil unions. Then last week, he said he would not support civil unions but might consider affording rights beyond the three domestic partner bills.

Yesterday, he said he had not decided on the medical-rights bill. "Certain rights should be afforded to all," he said, adding that he does not want to "create something that redefines marriage."

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