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March 11, 2011

Marriage equality hangs tough in Maryland and New Hampshire

Keen News Service

Proponents of marriage equality are holding their own this week in two battleground states, despite tough skirmishes that threatened ground they had previously gained. But in both states –Maryland and New Hampshire—more critical battles seem almost inevitable, perhaps on the ballot in 2012.

In Maryland, a House committee passed a marriage equality bill by a narrow margin on March 4, even though key supporters--including some co-sponsors—appeared ready to cave in to opponents. The full House is now debating the measure and will likely vote on it this week. But opponents have promised to petition for a voter referendum in November 2012, if the bill passes.

In New Hampshire, the House Judiciary Committee voted March 3 to table a bill that seeks to repeal the state’s existing marriage equality law. That action postpones further consideration of the repeal bill until January 2012. But opponents of marriage equality in the Granite State have said they, too, will introduce a bill next year –one seeking to place a question on the ballot in November 2012, asking voters to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages.

The struggle in Maryland grew especially fierce in the House Judiciary Committee, when a vote scheduled for March 1 was delayed because Delegates Tiffany Alston and Jill Carter—both co-sponsors—failed to appear. Alston issued a statement saying she wanted more time to weigh her decision based on “the diverse and diametrically opposed feedback” from constituents and others. Carter, in an interview with WBALTV, claimed her absence was an effort to draw attention to other legislation.

Then, on March 3, Delegate Sam Arora, an original co-sponsor of the marriage equality bill, told House Majority Leader Kumar Barve that he would vote against the bill on the floor. The turnabout was especially stinging for Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT group that endorsed Arora in the last general election.

“I wrestled with this issue in a way I never had before,” said Arora, in a statement posted to his web site. He said he would vote support the bill in committee but now believes Maryland should offer only civil union to same-sex couples.

In the final committee vote, with all members present, Arora and Carter were among the 12 delegates, all Democrats, who voted for the bill. Alston was among the 10 voting against it.

Committee Chair Joseph F. Vallario Jr., who has indicated he does not support marriage equality, cast the last–and deciding–vote to send the bill to full House.

Arora clarified that he voted for the bill in committee, and will support it on the House floor, only because he expects voters will have a chance to weigh in on the issue in November 2012, should the full House pass the bill and Governor Martin O’Malley (D) sign it, as promised.

On his web site, he said the issue “has such impact on the people of Maryland that they should have a direct say . . . On the floor, I will vote to send the bill to the governor so that Marylanders can ultimately decide this issue at the polls.”

Arora’s position echoed that expressed by several state senators during their deliberation of the Senate bill February 24. State Senator Nancy Jacobs told the chamber that opponents of marriage equality have already been meeting with “people all around the country who have run successful referendums on this issue.”

The state constitution allows voters to submit laws to a referendum if they can collect enough signatures: 55,736. Collection can start as soon as a bill passes the legislature. One-third of the signatures must be submitted by June 1, and the rest by June 30.

If enough signatures are collected for a referendum, no same-sex marriage licenses could be issued until 30 days after the November 2012 election—at which point, the results of the referendum would determine whether they could begin. If there is no referendum, the state could begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as early as October 1 of this year.

A 2001 attempt to hold a referendum to repeal the state’s new law banning discrimination by sexual orientation failed after the ACLU of Maryland won a lawsuit charging that referendum proponents had failed to collect enough valid signatures.

Two other states have rescinded marriage equality through voter referenda: Maine, in 2009, repealed a law newly passed by the state legislature, and California, in 2008, turned back a state supreme court ruling that the state constitution required marriage equality. In the latter case, Proposition 8 amended the state constitution to establish a ban on same-sex marriage. That measure is under challenge in federal court.

Passage in the Maryland House remains uncertain, however. As of Tuesday, the marriage equality bill had 58 sponsors in the House, but was still “probably one to two short” of the 71 votes needed for passage, said Delegate Heather Mizeur, in an interview March 8. “There is still a large block of undecided who will go to the floor undecided.”

Last week, Delegate Melvin Stukes said he would withdraw as a sponsor (he had been No. 59), after realizing the bill would grant full marriage equality instead of civil union.

Mizeur said supporters in the House hope to pass an identical bill to the one passed by the Senate, allowing it to go directly to the governor for his signature. If the House bill is amended in any way, a House and Senate conference committee would need to agree on a final version to be voted on again in each chamber.

 

 


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