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The rise (and rights) of same-sex couples

If Maryland lawmakers needed greater evidence that the time has come to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, they need look no further than the 51 percent increase in same-sex couples reported this week by the U.S. Census.

This isn't a population boom so much as a coming-out-of-the-closet boom. In 2000, the Census found 11,243 Maryland households where people of the same gender reported themselves as unmarried couples. The number jumped to 16,987 in 2010 or 1.5 percent of all couples in the state.

Other states have reported similar results. In neighboring Virginia, for instance, the number rose 49 percent (and no one is suggesting that Richmond is the next South Beach).

What's particularly striking about the Maryland data is that while the urban areas of the state, Baltimore in particular, can boast of the highest concentration of same-sex couples, there are similar increases in every subdivision, from Garrett to Worcester counties. The change in attitudes is truly a societal trend and not something confined to cities or even suburbs.

Same-sex couples are holding down jobs. They are paying taxes. And they are raising children — at least 4,500 (or 28 percent) of the Maryland couples are, according to the census.

They ought to be extended the same basic human rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, not only to encourage loving, committed and financially stable relationships that are the backbone of any community but particularly for the sake of their children.

As Catherine Kelly and Sue Heether of Timonium told The Sun's Steve Kilar, without the legal protections that come with secular marriage, they worry for their children — for example, that a hospital might deny access to a sick or injured child to the nonbiological parent. Same-sex couples often struggle with health insurance, property rights, inheritance and a myriad of other legal privileges that married couples can take for granted.

Recently, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that he will sponsor legislation in the next General Assembly session to legalize gay marriage. This is not a universally popular position; recently, some of the political and religious pressure the governor faced to stay out of the gay marriage issue was revealed.

In a letter written prior to that decision but made public this week, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien wrote to Mr. O'Malley, who is Roman Catholic, warning that "Maryland is not New York" and that the latter's choice to legalize same-sex marriage is no example to follow. "We urge you not to allow your role as leader of our state to be used in allowing the debate surrounding the definition of marriage to be determined by mere political expediency," he wrote in the July 20 letter.

Mere political expediency? In three words, the clergyman dismissed the aspirations of an entire segment of the population and implied that any revision in the law could be motivated only by political ambition and not civil rights. In an Aug. 4 letter, Mr. O'Malley replied that he had an obligation to right an "injustice" and returned a little dig of his own — telling Mr. O'Brien he looked forward to working with him on issues of agreement "without questioning your motives."

All religions have a right to their beliefs, of course, but society's civil laws covering such freedoms as access to birth control and marriage are another matter entirely. The United States is not nor has it ever been a theocracy.

As more same-sex couples go public and share their lives and the legal challenges they face with the public, as Ms. Kelly and Ms. Heether have done, the glaring need for Maryland to legalize same-sex marriage becomes all the more evident.

Same-sex couples remain a distinct minority in this state, but it doesn't mean that they should be denied the same rights as the majority. They have proved themselves willing to announce their presence in their communities. In turn, we should be willing to make sure they, and their children, are not treated as second-class citizens.

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