Marriage Push in Maryland

Activists gather in Annapolis to advance marriage-equality legislation

Michael Lacey used to be a private person.

On Wednesday, March 11, speaking in front of a crowd of about 30 people in a meeting room of the Lowe House Office Building near the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis, Lacey explained how his life has changed since August when his partner of nearly 24 years, Ira Kaye, died as the result of an automobile injury.

”I always felt … that as a citizen of Maryland that I had greater rights and equality than I certainly had in the state of Virginia. But with Ira’s passing … I really came to understand that it just really is not enough.”

Lacey shared his story during a press conference in support of legislation to secure marriage equality in Maryland.

”We have an 11-year-old son. As a result of this, I’ve noticed just so many injuries to us in terms of providing for the family,” Lacey said, adding that he’s paying an inheritance tax on the home the couple bought and shared together.

”That money would be spent on [our son's] college education, or for me to take additional time off and support him,” Lacey said. ”I think it’s very important that we put a personal face on something that can seem impersonal.”

Joining Lacey at the podium was Maryland State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery Co.), who is gay and the lead sponsor of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act.

Originally introduced by the late State Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George’s Co.), who died Jan. 12, 2008, of heart failure, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act would allow any two unrelated adults to legally wed. The legislation also clearly exempts all religious institutions from performing any marriage ceremony, at that institution’s own discretion, in accordance with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religious expression.

Madaleno reintroduced the Senate Bill on Feb. 6, and Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s Cos.) introduced the House version on Feb. 13.

At the March 11 conference, held immediately prior to hearings on the bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Madaleno introduced two doctors who talked about the impact of marriage on one’s health.

”Marriage, compared to cohabitating unmarried couples, actually brings tremendous benefits,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, a health officer for Howard County and former health commissioner of Baltimore.

”For individual adults it’s better health in general, less doctor visits, less depression and substance abuse. For older folks in the 65-and-older range, it’s less nursing-home admissions,” Beilenson said.

”I think it is disturbing and distressingly sad that we’re having to still talk about this, and that the rights that my wife and I share can’t be shared by other couples living in loving relationships. This is going to happen in our lifetimes, so why not now?”

Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor at the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University, said, referring in part to Lacey’s story, that it’s precisely at those moments, such as a partner’s death, when the benefits of marriage are most vital.

”What we’re really calling on the Legislature to understand is that this is a redress that can be corrected with a stroke of a pen. It’s simple: You gain the tremendous health benefits of marriage by simply extending that benefit to all Marylanders who deserve it and who are living without it.”

That includes J.B. Hanson of Baltimore, who also addressed the Annapolis attendees: ”If 42 years, one month and eight days is not a commitment and a marriage, I don’t know what is.”

And while they did not speak at the press conference on Wednesday, Madaleno thanked Gita Deane and Lisa Polyak for their involvement as the lead plaintiffs of the 2004-2007 case (Deane & Polyak v. Conaway) that unsuccessfully challenged a 1973 state law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

”Unfortunately, the court did not say [then that] we have a constitutional right [to marriage equality], but did say that we have a right as citizens to come forward and ask for our full acceptance, inclusion and rights as Marylanders through the legislative process,” Madaleno said.

On March 12, the House version of the bill was given a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, with many of the same stories heard in the Senate Committee.

Those testifying in favor of marriage equality included Britt’s husband, Travis Britt, also a civil-rights activist; Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, and former U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.).

Concurrently, bills seeking to amend Maryland’s Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman only, collectively the Marriage Protection Act, have been introduced in the Maryland House and Senate SB647 and HB913().

Committee votes have not yet been scheduled for the House or Senate versions of the bills seeking marriage equality, though Kate Runyon, executive director of Equality Maryland, says she expects action before the session ends in mid April.

And while the struggle for marriage equality in Maryland may be challenging, Madaleno encouraged supporters by pointing to the positive.

”We have four new sponsors in the House, bringing the total to close to one third of the General Assembly, and we are continuing to make progress by educating people. We’re picking up steam, but we still have a very large hurdle to get across.”

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