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City man involved with same-sex marriage suit

July 25, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Love, not gender, is what matters, said John Lestitian of Hagerstown, who is suing to overturn Maryland's ban on gay marriage.

"Marriage equality is about two things," he said. "It's about loving another person and devoting yourself to that person, and it's about family."

But Maryland's Family Law Article is specific. It says, "Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state."

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Heterosexuality in marriage is a bedrock that can't be ignored, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who favors etching "one man, one woman" into the state constitution.

"This comes down from our Judeo-Christian background," he said. "This comes down from a higher - quote - moral law."

Gay rights activists nationwide have taken their marriage fight to clerks' offices and to courtrooms.

"Let me have the same treatment - not benefits - as you," Lestitian said.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued five circuit court clerks on July 7 on behalf of Lestitian and nine same-sex couples. The couples were denied marriage licenses from four clerks' offices.

Lestitian was not denied a license, but the lawsuit says he would have been because "[t]he office of the Washington County Circuit Court Clerk will not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples."

In February, the Maryland Attorney General's office reminded all clerks of court in the state that same-sex marriage is not permitted.

This month's lawsuit may have marked a shift in strategy. At a forum in March, ACLU attorney David Rocah said the courts might not be the best approach for victory.

"The most important battle is the battle in the court of public opinion," Rocah said then.

During the past session of the Maryland General Assembly, the House Judiciary Committee discussed preserving heterosexual marriage.

The committee considered a bill saying the state wouldn't recognize gay marriages from other states. Another bill would have amended the state constitution, incorporating "one man, one woman."

Both bills failed, said Shank, who sits on the committee.

Yet the issue reached the House floor when the out-of-state gay marriage bill was added to a separate noncontroversial marriage bill, Shank said. That effort also failed.

Shank said the constitutional amendment would require a public referendum, "which I think is the crux of this argument."

The ACLU and other groups are suing because they don't have the public or government support to pass a law, he said.

Earlier this month, Shank, the House assistant minority leader, defended his view in a Washington Post online forum.

When someone asked who would be hurt if gays and lesbians could marry, Shank wrote, "I believe that gay marriage would devalue the marriages of the states' man and wife couples."

Lestitian's response last week: "What a sad man."

If same-sex marriage devalues a heterosexual marriage, "well, then, the value of your marriage must not be that much," Lestitian said.

Gay and lesbian couples value marriage so much, they're fighting for it, he said.

Hearing Lestitian's comment, Shank said he wouldn't inject his own marriage into the debate.

He stuck by his online chat statement.

"A man and a woman (marry) under a certain belief and expectation of the ground rules," he said. "It has some special significance.

"When you change those ground rules and chip away at the foundation, you cheapen all marriage."

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