Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage Intrigue in Maryland

Update 2: Separate but Equal in Maryland, Roger Taney Would be so Proud

Update: A vote is now expected tomorrow. Del. Carter has indicated that she will vote in favor of the bill. Del. Alston has not stated how she intends to vote.

Legislation legalizing same-sex civil marriage in Maryland passed by a relatively comfortable 25-21 margin in the state Senate last week. Most analysts considered the Senate to be the tougher challenge and assumed that passage would be rather easy to secure in the Maryland House of Delegates... apparently not. As the House Judiciary Committee was preparing to vote to send the bill to the floor 2 members of the committee staged a walk-out and ended consideration of the bill. Dels. Jill Carter of Baltimore and Tiffany Alston of Prince Georges County decided that they weren't prepared to vote for the legislation - an incredibly interesting and mindboggling decision given that both are co-sponsor of the bill.

Del. Carter later indicated that she was withholding support because she feels that the Assembly should be focused on more important issue such as education or child custody... one may reasonably ask then, why she chose to sponsor a bill that she deemed to be of lesser importance. Alston told press outlets that she was reconsidering her position, but later issued a statement in which she wrote "As a law maker it is my duty and privilege to serve the people and try to find balance and equity where inequity exits. This duty is compounded when your personal religious beliefs are contrary to what you believe to be fundamentally right for society.... Accordingly, I have resolved that if and when the chairman calls the vote I will be ready to vote based on what I believe is right..”

Many interpret Alston's statement to be an indication that she will support the bill. In another development, Del. Melvin Stukes of Baltimore withdrew his sponsorship of the bill explaining that he thought the bill only provided for civil unions and not for civil marriage. In the spirit of full disclosure, I know Del. Stukes and have the utmost respect for him, but the text of the bill has always been clear with regard to legalizing civil marriage.

So what's happening in the Maryland House? Why are co-sponsors of the bill flaking out? The most likely explanation is that they sponsored the legislation based on the assumption that it would never pass in the Senate and they would never be called upon to cast a vote in favor of it. Now, there is a very real possibility that the bill will become law and these lawmakers were not prepared for the pressure of actually casting a vote.

It is likely more than a coincidence that the three delegates referenced are African American and represent predominantly African-American constituencies. As reported by the Washington Post, African-American churches and religious leaders have emerged as a strong voice of opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage (as have Catholic churches and leaders). No doubt Dels. Stukes, Carter, and Alston have been hearing much of that opposition.

If they happen to be reading this blog post I would ask that they consider the words of Rep. John Lewis, one of America's greatest heroes of the Civil Rights movement.

Writing in 2003 Lewis declared in no uncertain terms “I have fought too hard and for too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.”

Fifty years ago, many states declared that African-Americans were not free to marry the person of their choosing. For a reason as arbitrary as the color of one's skin, a basic civil right was denied. Today, even more states deny the right to marry based on sexual orientation - is that truly less arbitrary?

One need not equate the struggle against generations of pain, suffering, and discrimination suffered by African Americans with the contemporary civil rights struggles of gay and lesbian Americans - but one should certainly equate the basic concept of fairness and equality under the law. In Loving v Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that outlawed bans on interracial marriage in the U.S., the court declared marriage to be a fundamental civil right. I would ask Dels. Stukes, Carter, Alston, and every other delegate - will you support this fundamental civil right or not?