Maryland legislators to weigh gay marriage bills

BY admin

February 25 2004 12:00 AM ET

Bills that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages and invalidate licenses obtained by Marylanders outside the state are scheduled to be reviewed by state lawmakers on Wednesday. Gay and lesbian couples married this month in San Francisco planned to testify before the house of delegates judiciary committee against the legislation, which would strengthen state law that already defines marriage as between a man and woman.

Rockville resident James Packard, who wed his longtime partner Erwin Gomez Feb. 17 in San Francisco, called the recent wave of gay marriages "a movement and a cause." He plans on testifying Wednesday in Annapolis and said the couple may wage a court fight to win the same legal rights that married heterosexuals are afforded in Maryland. "I am going to stick up for my rights," Packard said Tuesday. "We can't keep persecuting people. We must accept that all is equal."

Gay rights groups say the dispute over same-sex marriage goes far beyond the simple ability to marry. Just as important are the property rights, inheritance rights, shared benefits, medical privacy rights, and other issues that come with a marriage license. Maryland law currently states that "only a marriage between a man and woman" is valid. The state attorney general's office issued a memo Tuesday to all court clerks reminding them that licenses cannot be issued to same-sex couples. The only exception is when the couple obtains a court order, the memo states. The possibility of judicial rulings that could weaken the law, combined with the recent wave of marriages in California, prompted state lawmakers to propose the two bills the judiciary committee will hear Wednesday.

Del. Charles Boutin, a Harford County Republican, introduced a bill that calls for an amendment of the state constitution, which would state that only marriages between men and women are valid. The amendment would have to be approved by voters. That would allow residents of the state to decide how to define marriage and make it harder for that definition to change, Boutin said; the current law can be overturned by the legislature or the courts. "That law could be changed in any given year by any given General Assembly and governor that chooses to do it," Boutin said. "I'm simply reaffirming through the constitution what is in the statute now."

But gay rights advocates said that allowing the electorate to determine the rights of a minority group is not fair. Other civil rights cases have been settled by the courts, not by public opinion, said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland. "I don't think civil rights should be up for a popular vote," Furmansky said.

The second bill would make marriage licenses that are given in other states, including San Francisco licenses, invalid in Maryland. The bill's sponsor, Del. Emmett Burns said giving same-sex couples marriage rights would degrade the institution and set the state on an "ascending spiral of decadence." He said the current law is mute on whether someone can import their marriage license to Maryland. "I want to close that door. That door is wide open," he said.

Furmansky said it may not be the right time to challenge the state law in the courts because there is so much uncertainty over whether the San Francisco marriages will be upheld by the California courts or if Massachusetts will go ahead with same-sex unions this spring. Packard and Gomez said they are considering using in a court challenge their San Francisco license to win the same rights as straight couples. They have consulted a lawyer who said that a challenge could be mounted if California's courts rule their license is valid. Those rights are important, Packard said.

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