By John Wagner -
It's too early to know whether the Maryland General Assembly will pass a bill in coming weeks to allow same-sex couples to marry. But this much is clear: There isn't much interest among lawmakers in compromising by allowing civil unions.
In a handful of states - including Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire - a parallel system of civil unions was adopted before full same-sex marriage rights were granted.
The governor of Illinois signed a civil unions bill last month, and one could land on the governor's desk in Hawaii this week. In both cases, supporters say the embrace of civil unions reflected a larger comfort level among the public.
But in Maryland - where a high-profile hearing on same-sex marriage is scheduled Tuesday - there is no indication that things are headed in that direction.
"It's a non-starter," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), an openly gay lawmaker whose views were echoed by other leading proponents of a marriage bill. "There's just no reason to create another institution when you already have one that works so well. We'd rather have nothing, and try again later, than settle for second-class citizenship."
Five states and the District grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The District is the only jurisdiction that chose to do so without first adopting civil unions or being strongly nudged by a court to allow marriages. However, a comprehensive domestic partnership law had been on the books in the District for years before the issuance of marriage licenses began last March.
Gay rights advocates in Maryland, which affords same-sex partners more limited rights, including ones involving hospital visitations and funeral arrangements, cite both philosophical and pragmatic arguments for this year's push for full marriage rights.
In one sense, same-sex marriage is a far simpler proposition: The bill merely lifts a requirement in Maryland law that marriage must be between a man and a woman. By contrast, civil union legislation must spell out which of the myriad rights that come with marriage are part of the new scheme. A court ruling a few years ago referenced 339 Maryland laws that confer benefits on married couples.
But perhaps the most important justification advocates offer for seeking full marriage rights this year is that they think they can get the votes.
Despite its liberal reputation, Maryland has moved more cautiously on social issues than some blue states, in part because of the strong influence of the Catholic Church and African American congregations that are conservative on some issues.
But as a result of turnover in last fall's elections, there are more legislators than ever sympathetic to gay rights. Moreover, shifts in committee assignments in the Senate - the chamber where gay marriage has been a tougher sell - mean the bill is all but certain to make it to the floor this year for a full airing.
A Washington Post survey last week found 20 senators committed to voting for the bill, which needs 24 votes for passage. Six senators said they were undecided.
Proponents also argue that thinking on the issue has evolved significantly since Vermont became the first state to grant civil unions in 2000. A same-sex marriage bill took effect there in 2009.
"Every place there's been civil unions it's been seen as a step along the way," said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, director of Equality Maryland, the state's leading gay rights lobby. "We don't need to do that in Maryland. We have our work to do, but we will have support for full marriage equality."
Civil unions remain the preferred alternative for many national Democrats, who have tried to stake out a middle ground that grants rights and protections to gay couples but does not offend the religious sensibilities of more conservative members of their party.
President Obama has supported civil unions but stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage, as has Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the party's 2004 presidential nominee.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), a Catholic, has voiced support for civil unions since his days as mayor of Baltimore. More recently, he said he would sign a same-sex marriage bill if it comes to his desk, but he has not made the legislation a priority.
The only public attempt to push civil unions in Maryland this year ended abruptly last week. Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) announced he was abandoning plans to introduce a civil unions bill and would instead support same-sex marriage.
Kittleman, who resigned as Senate minority leader because of his support for civil unions, said he still believes that was the better way to go. "I was trying to bring people together," he said. "I think there is more acceptance of civil unions because of the desire not to have government involved in the institution of marriage."
Recent polling has suggested wider public acceptance in Maryland of civil unions than same-sex marriage.
In a poll released in January, 51 percent of respondents said they favor a law allowing same-sex couples to marry. When asked about civil unions, 62 percent said they favor such a law. The poll was conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.
In Illinois, the decision to pursue civil unions was based in part on public polling, said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago area Democrat who sponsored the bill. Harris, who is openly gay, said he hopes Illinois's legislature will adopt marriage legislation at some point after it becomes clear "the sky has not fallen and locusts have not ascended" as a result of civil unions.
Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) said he thinks Maryland should take a cue from Illinois.
If a marriage bill is approved in Maryland, opponents are likely to use a provision in state law that will allow them to petition to put it to the 2012 ballot for a statewide vote. "If we jump into gay marriage, it's going to be a real fight at referendum," Brochin said, predicting "a mess" if the public votes down the law.