The Maryland house of delegates on Monday gave final approval to a bill that would permit same-sex couples to register as "life partners" with the state health department, The Washington Post reports. The registry would grant gay and lesbian couples some of the state-level rights afforded to married couples, including hospital visitation and the right to make medical decisions for a partner. The measure, which advocates called a first step on the road to civil unions, passed by a surprisingly strong, bipartisan vote of 103-30 after it was expanded to include any unmarried couple regardless of sexual orientation. Those likely to benefit include elderly couples who choose not to remarry because it could jeopardize pension and other benefits from a deceased spouse.
Gay rights activists said they were astonished by the level of support the bill received, at a time when most states are focusing on how to prohibit same-sex unions in the wake of court decisions favoring gay marriage, the Post reported. Nearly two dozen Republicans voted for the measure, including the author of a failed proposal to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Some socially conservative Democrats also voted for the bill, including a Baptist minister from Baltimore who at first had tried to kill it. The measure now moves to the senate, where advocates are hoping for a favorable reception as the general assembly moves into the final two weeks of its annual legislative session. Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the education, health, and environmental affairs committee, said the measure should sail through the committee. If the senate approves the bill, it would be sent to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for his signature. Ehrlich, a Republican, has spoken out forcefully against same-sex marriage. But his communications director, Paul E. Schurick, said he is not sure whether Ehrlich would reject the move to create the registry.