Marriage in Maryland by April?

24 Jan 2011

21 January 2011

by Julie Bolcer

Maryland advocates and a leading lawmaker projected confidence that a marriage equality bill could pass the state general assembly by early April, while they also predicted success for a gender identity antidiscrimination measure.

"We're in a really great position to be advancing a marriage bill and an anti-discrimination bill," said Cameron Tolle, online organizer for Freedom to Marry, which cohosted a conference call for bloggers Friday afternoon with Equality Maryland to discuss the time line and prospects for the measures. The call also included state senator Jamie Raskin, lead sponsor of the marriage equality bill introduced in the senate this week and a member of the judicial proceedings committee, where the measure could be heard as soon as February 1.

Maryland is one of three states, along with New York and Rhode Island, poised to achieve marriage equality this year, with favorable conditions in state legislatures and governors intent on signing bills into law. Based on the Friday call, the Mid-Atlantic state neighboring Washington, D.C., could be the first to reach the finish line.

Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, detailed a carefully coordinated and rapidly unfolding time line in which the marriage equality bill would be introduced in the house of delegates this Tuesday, followed by a hearing in the key senate committee the first week of February. She predicted the full senate would vote on the measure, known as Senate Bill 116, before the end of next month.

"There is a will on the part of leadership in the senate to have this bill done with before the budget pieces begin in the senate and that starts on February 21," she said. "There is a will to have this all done."

The rush to pass marriage equality before contending with the economy differs from conventional wisdom about New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers are expected to address the state's $10 billion budget deficit before taking a second vote on marriage equality, which failed in the senate in 2009. Compared to many other states, the economic picture appears less devastating in Maryland, where unemployment hovers at the relatively low 7.4%. Democrats also picked up two state senate seats in Maryland last year, bucking the national Republican trend.

However, before the marriage equality bill makes it through the house, where Meneses-Sheets predicted a surge of activity in March, it must survive an expected filibuster attempt as part of what she called a "three-day floor fight" in the senate. She expressed confidence in overcoming the filibuster, given that 18 senators already have cosponsored the measure, which needs 24 votes to pass the full 48-member senate.

One senator advocates hope to woo is Howard County Republican Allan Kittleman, who plans to introduce a civil unions bill that some fear could distract from the marriage equality effort. He surprised observers by withdrawing from his minority leader post this week after deciding that he was not conservative enough for his other 11 GOP colleagues.

Senator Raskin said the move by Kittleman illustrates the positive climate in the chamber, where for the first time Sen. Robert Garajiola, the Democratic majority leader, is also a sponsor of the bill.

"I think there is a sense that it's going to happen, and the question is just when," said Raskin. "People can read the writing on the wall."

The general assembly session adjourns April 11, by which time advocates hope to have passed the marriage equality bill, which Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated he would sign. Meneses-Sheets predicted a celebratory signing ceremony afterward at an undetermined date.

Should Maryland become the sixth U.S. state to recognize marriage equality, it would represent a victory in a state where the Catholic Church historically wields significant power. The Maryland Catholic Conference plans to fight the bill, along with the Catholic-fronted National Organization for Marriage and Protect Maryland Marriage, a new group affiliated with NOM and the Family Research Council.

A win would also once again demonstrate acceptance in a jurisdiction with a significant minority population, as almost 30% of Maryland's 5.7 million residents identified as African-American in the 2010 U.S. Census. African-Americans make up the majority of the population in nearby Washington, D.C., where marriage equality became legal in 2010.

Looking beyond victory, advocates would face the possibility of a 2012 referendum to overturn marriage equality, an initiative that NOM and like-minded equality foes would no doubt push. However, Meneses-Sheets stressed that a referendum would not be a foregone conclusion. A ballot initiative would require collection of more than 55,000 valid signatures in a short time period, and a similar attempt to challenge the addition of sexual orientation to the human rights law failed in the previous decade.

"There's a history in Maryland of keeping social policies off the ballot," said Meneses-Sheets.

While the marriage equality bill was introduced first in the senate, the strategy outlined Friday calls for introducing the gender identity antidiscrimination bill first in the house. It is expected to be introduced in the house next week and receive a hearing before the government and operations committee in mid February before getting a full vote in late February or early March. The bill, which would ban discrimination in housing and employment based on gender identity, would then head to the senate.

Equality Maryland, which said its lobbying resources have grown, confirmed that it is receiving assistance from national groups including Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. A lobby day is planned for the state capitol in Annapolis on February 14.