A Politically Volatile Victory

Baltimore marriage win heightens election year posturing in Maryland

Gay marriage is once again an election issue after a judge’s ruling in Maryland last week, and it surfaced at a time when that state’s Republicans and Democrats were already wrangling over how best to ensure the rights of LGBT Marylanders.

Last Thursday, Republican Governor George Ehrlich, up for re-election in November, proposed legislation that he said would help same-sex couples make medical decisions for each other. The governor described the bill as a substitute for a more comprehensive gay partner medical bill he vetoed in November.

LGBT advocates called the bill a poor substitute for last year’s legislation. That bill, the Medical Decision Making Act, guaranteed registered couples not only control of each other’s medical care, but also ensured they were allowed to accompany their partners in ambulances and control their funeral arrangements.

"A bridal registry at Target would offer same-sex couples more benefits than this watered-down, election-year ploy by Governor Ehrlich," said Eric Stern, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, in a statement. "It is simply an attempt to keep the Medical Decision Making Act from being sent to his desk again."

Last year, Ehrlich said that the term "life partner" in the original bill’s language "could lead to the erosion of the sanctity of traditional marriage as codified by Maryland law." The governor’s alternative proposal would create a database where anyone could register the name of the person allowed to make end-of-life medical decisions for them.

"This can’t be regarded as a gay-right’s bill at all," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state LGBT rights lobby. "It does nothing to create familial relationships, and only makes sure hospitals honor advance directives, something most of us don’t have anyway."

Furmansky also said the bill is in no way comparable to the thorough protections granted by the earlier Medical Decision Making Act, adding, "though we have no reason to oppose it."

Ehrlich’s announcement came just one day before Baltimore Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled that the Maryland law banning same-sex marriage had not withstood a constitutional challenge advanced by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 19 gay and lesbian plaintiffs.

"Although tradition and societal values are important, they cannot be given so much weight that they alone will justify a discriminatory statutory classification," Murdock wrote in her decision last Friday.

The rights of gay and lesbian couples in Maryland were suddenly more than just a simmering debate. In an election year, the ruling has forced lawmakers, especially Democrats who would otherwise likely have sidestepped the issue entirely, to take a stand.

"I am disappointed in the court’s decision,” the GOP governor said in the wake of the ruling. “I firmly believe the institution of marriage is for one man and one woman only. I am evaluating all options available to guarantee that marriage in Maryland remains a protected union between a man and a woman."

Ehrlich’s two main Democratic rivals both issued statements designed to avoid offending voters.

"I support the process and will await the ultimate resolution by the Maryland Court of Appeals,” said Democrat Douglas M. Duncan, who serves as the Montgomery County executive in the suburban area near Washington. “Right now, we need to focus our attention on passing a strong medical decision making bill, and oppose Governor Ehrlich’s efforts to weaken these protections."

In a similar vein, the leading Democrat, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, said, "Today’s court’s decision should not distract us from the important efforts now underway in the Legislature to make sure every Marylander is treated with fairness, especially in the area of health care decision-making."

O’Malley’s spokesman, Jona-than Epstein, said in an interview that the candidate does not support gay marriage, but is in favor of some form of civil union law.

The day the ruling came out, House Democrats were successful in altering the procedural rules so that constitutional amendments could not be

enacted by a simple legislative majority through a rider attached to another bill. Traditionally, amendments to the state Constitution have been approved, without voter ratification, when both houses of the Legislature passed them by a three-fifths majority. However, last year, Republican state Delegate Donald Dwyer, Jr., introduced an anti-gay marriage amendment as a rider to a bill in its final moments of consideration on the House floor, in an untested effort to circumvent the three-fifths requirement. The rule change makes explicit that only a three-fifths vote can amend the Constitution.

The Democratic rule change also eliminated the right to raise an amendment from the floor. Instead, an amendment must first go to committee, currently controlled by the Democratic majority, which can keep it bottled up and away from an attention-getting floor debate. Thus, the maneuver, completed prior to the Baltimore court ruling, was part of an overall Democratic effort to keep the marriage issue out of the public eye.

There is no provision in Maryland for voter-initiated constitutional amendments.

The Baltimore ruling stymied the Democrats’ hopes of avoiding the marriage issue this year; party insiders concede they now view the issue as a liability in the upcoming elections. Traditionally, fewer voters turn out for state contests that are not simultaneous with a presidential election. The controversy can only benefit Republicans who might garner votes from those motivated simply because gay marriage is an issue, these insiders warned.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., a Democrat, made clear just how unhappy some Democrats are that gay marriage has reared its head as an issue, complaining to the Baltimore Sun that the plaintiffs in the case shopped for a friendly court before filing.

"The far left is playing into the hands of the far right. They’re idiots," he said.

Already, the Maryland Legislature’s Democrats are moving to lessen the political damage. On Tuesday, Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons proposed legislation that would freeze the effect of any Maryland court ruling on gay marriage until 2007 after the Legislature has a chance to assess its impact—but most importantly after Election Day 2006.

Another Democrat, Brian Frosh, told the Washington Post, "I don’t want to see the gubernatorial election, or any other election, tangled up in this issue."

Following Murdock’s ruling last week, Republican Dwyer reportedly contacted the state’s attorney general regarding the steps necessary to impeach the Baltimore judge.

Opponents of an amendment in Maryland have argued that it is redundant, saying state law clearly mandates that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The ruling out of Baltimore now calls that into question, and Ehrlich has been given an issue to boost what media reports have said is a candidacy 10 points behind Democrat O’Malley.

On Election Day 2004, of the 11 states that had marriage amendments on the ballot, all passed. Nine of those states also went for President George W. Bush in the election, though of the nine, only Ohio was a state truly in play.

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