Maryland, For Now, Steps Back From Marriage Equality

After an emotional three-hour floor debate March 11, the Maryland House of Delegates sent a marriage equality measure back to the Judiciary Committee.

The action indicated that supporters did not have the votes to ensure passage.

One advocate close to the developments in Annapolis told Gay City News that the Judiciary Committee, under rules of the Maryland Legislature, is like “a parking lot” –– the bill being returned there does not preclude it from being taken up on the floor again later this year or next year.

While Washington Post reports that the House of Delegates’ action “effectively kills” the measure for 2011, the Baltimore Sun wrote, “It's unclear what will happen next.”

Metro Weekly, an LGBT publication in Washington, quoted House Speaker Michael Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democat, telling reporters, “I think you need another year. As of next year, people will have more information and determine what direction they will take.”

The State Senate on February 24 approved the same bill, with one Republican joining 24 Democrats in a 25-21 vote, and should the House act favorably in 2011 or 2012, no further Senate action would be required.

Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is committed to signing the measure if passed.

Following the Delegates' action, O'Malley released a statement saying, “It was my hope to sign a marriage equality act.. while protecting religious freedom in our state… I remain committed to working with all Marylanders to ensure that rights are protected equally for everyone.”

As the marriage bill moved through the Legislature, advocates initially considered the House of Delegates the easier chamber to get the bill through.

Last week, however, the measure stumbled in the Judiciary committee when two co-sponsors walked out of a March 1 hearing, refusing to vote.

The bill cleared the Judiciary Committee on March 4 by a 12-10 margin after Delegate Sam Arora, a Montgomery County Democrat, agreed to vote yes.

In a written statement, Equality Maryland’s executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, and its board president, Charles Butler, said, “While we are disappointed the House did not vote to pass marriage equality today, we are confident we will win in the future. With so much at stake today for thousands of Maryland families, we are thankful that our legislative allies have taken such care with this vote. It is best to delay this historic vote until we are absolutely sure we have the votes to win.”

In a joint statement released by Equality Maryland, the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and Gill Action, those groups wrote, “Over the past several days it has become clear that additional time to continue the marriage conversation in the state will better position the Civil Marriage Protection Act for success. By taking a bit more time, the majority of Marylanders who support the freedom to marry in the state will have the opportunity to have their voices heard by their legislators.”

Opponents of marriage equality in Maryland have promised to launch a petition drive for a repeal referendum if the law is enacted. Last week, the Washington Blade reported on mailers targeting Baltimore County State Senator Jim Brochin –– a Democrat who changed his position from pro-civil union to pro-marriage equality shortly before the February Senate vote –– distributed by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.

The advocate who spoke to Gay City News after the House of Delegates action, who did not wish to be identified, said one factor in the decision to pull the bill back rather than risk a loss was the concern that a defeat could slow down efforts to advance similar measures being considered by the legislatures in New York and Rhode Island.

A marriage bill, supported by the last three New York governors, including Democrat Andrew Cuomo, has been approved by the State Assembly three times since 2007, but failed by a 38-24 vote in the Senate in December 2009. Advocates who met with Cuomo on March 9 in Albany for a strategy session came away favorably impressed with the new governor’s commitment to getting a bill done before the Legislature adjourns in late June.

Five states — Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Iowa — as well as the District of Columbia allow full marriage equality. According to Lambda Legal, New York, Maryland, and New Mexico offer limited or full recognition to valid out-of-state marriages by same-sex couples.

A 2008 appellate-level state court ruling in New York established the precedent here for recognizing out-of-state marriages. However, New York State offers fewer rights to same-sex couples than four of the five bordering states — New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont — and both of the bordering Canadian provinces — Quebec and Ontario. Only Pennsylvania among New York’s neighbors is as inattentive to the rights of gay and lesbian couples.