Same-sex marriage - Taking on the taboo

March 28, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

TRI-STATE - In blunt language, laws in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia expressly forbid gay marriages.

"Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state," says Article 2-201 of Maryland's Family Law.

"Every application for a marriage license must contain the following statement: 'Marriage is designed to be a loving and lifelong union between a woman and a man,'" West Virginia's marriage statute says.

"It is hereby declared to be the strong and longstanding public policy of this Commonwealth that marriage shall be between one man and one woman," Pennsylvania's law says. "A marriage between persons of the same sex, which was entered into in another state or foreign jurisdiction, even if valid where entered into, shall be void in this Commonwealth."


These frank prohibitions make it unlikely that local same-sex couples will pursue marriage licenses - at least, with the fervor that couples in California, Oregon and New York have lately.

In Pennsylvania, "no one is planning on testing the law," said Scott Safier of Pittsburgh, the organizer of the Pennsylvania Freedom to Marry Coalition, a gay family-rights group.

Vermont currently is the only state to allow civil unions, which allow same-sex partners to have marriage-type rights and privileges inside the state.

No state allows gay couples to marry, but Massachusetts is scheduled to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses May 17.

Still, instead of the marriage office at the courthouse, the primary battleground in the gay marriage movement in most states has been the statehouse.

At least three-quarters of the states have "Defense of Marriage" laws prohibiting gay marriage. A federal version says married couples must be made up of one man and one woman, and President Bush has said he favors amending the U.S. Constitution to include that idea.

"Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society," Bush said in a national address in February. "Government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all."

Same-sex legislation

Rather than challenging Pennsylvania's existing law, Safier said his group has been focusing its fight on a bill that would have banned gay people from adopting children and would have repealed an expansion of benefits for gay state workers. Those provisions, inserted into a more general adoption bill, were withdrawn.

The Maryland General Assembly considered at least three bills this year related to the issue.

One bill said that same-sex marriages are "against the public policy of this state" and that out-of-state gay marriages would not be recognized in Maryland. Another bill called for marriage to be defined in the state constitution as including one man and one woman, if voters approve the change.

Neither bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee, probably killing them both.

Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland - a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered civil rights group - said a bill to grant same-sex couples the right to make medical decisions for each other still may pass.

The bill, which creates a state registry of domestic partners, passed the House Health and Government Operations Committee by a 15-6 vote Friday. The full House is scheduled to vote on the bill this week, according to The Associated Press. If it passes the House and Senate, it would go to the governor for his signature.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, chairman of the county's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, has said he supports amending the state constitution to ban gay marriages.

"It's a spiritual and religious issue," he said this month. "Marriage predates the church and it's something that should not be trifled with."

Shank also said he supports legislation to clarify that gay marriages performed elsewhere will not be recognized in Maryland.

In a Feb. 24 opinion, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe wrote that state law already appears to spell that out, although a bill could add emphasis.

Seeking equal rights

At a forum Equality Maryland sponsored at Hagerstown Community College on Thursday, gay rights advocates said they want equal protection that the U.S. Constitution guarantees.

They don't want to be barred from their partners' dying moments at a hospital. They don't want to be denied insurance rights.

They want the more than 1,000 benefits, rights and responsibilities that go along with a civil marriage license.

One of the few people to speak out against gay marriage at Thursday's forum, Rob Smith of Hagerstown, said, "Throughout Scripture, marriage is always presented as a marriage between a man and a woman, and God has designed it like that. It is the only relationship that can produce life, develop young lives and develop healthy adults."

"This is all about sin and the decaying of our society," he added.

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