With a Senate committee hearing tomorrow, the General Assembly begins its debate over same-sex marriage, an issue that has closely divided the state. Polls suggest that Maryland residents support and oppose legalizing gay unions in about equal numbers. Advocates, including Gov.Martin O'Malley, met in Baltimore over the weekend in preparation for an effort to win over the crucial few votes in the House of Delegates that eluded them last year. And tonight, opponents of the measure are scheduled to rally in front of the State House in hopes of once again derailing the bill. But despite all the passion on both sides of the debate, it boils down to this: Gay marriage is a matter of fairness, of individual liberty and of strengthening Maryland families.
The question for lawmakers is not what the latest polls say or whether their vote fits into some political agenda. It's whether same-sex couples in long-term, committed relationships should be entitled to the same civil rights in matters of tax benefits, inheritance rights, child custody, power of attorney and other matters as the state's heterosexual married couples. Anything less amounts to denying people's rights as citizens because of their sexual orientation, and that is just as wrong as if it was done on the basis of race, religion or disability.
There may never be a consensus among the state's religious organizations over whether God intended people of the same sex to love each other and to marry. Those are theological questions best left up to the members of each faith to decide, and this legislation includes clear, explicit protections of their right to do so. But just as the government may not impede the right to the free exercise of religion, no particular religion's values may be the basis of the law of the land. A democracy requires that all citizens be treated equally and in accordance with the same basic rules of fairness.
Nor should equal justice for everyone be an issue subject to the usual political horse-trading and back-scratching that goes on in Annapolis. This is different from a simple "vote for the road project in my district, and I'll vote for yours" sort of transaction. The gay marriage issue goes to the heart of values that both advocates and opponents consider fundamental, and it shouldn't be an excuse for lawmakers to swap their votes and their principles to advance ancillary causes, no matter how worthy.
This debate shouldn't be a partisan one, either. Those who advocate for limited government and individual freedom have every reason to embrace legislation that removes the state as an arbiter of a moral question — and includes protections that allow religious organizations to follow their own values. Those who make strengthening families a primary concern would do well to recognize that thousands of committed gay couples in the state are already raising children. Voting against same-sex marriage doesn't make them go away, it just makes them more vulnerable.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to a matter of conscience as much as one of law and policy. No wonder it has aroused intense passions among those both for and against gay marriage, including the governor's wife, Katie O'Malley, who made a rare public gaffe last week when she described Baltimore City andPrince George's Countylegislators who, at the last minute, backed out of supporting a similar bill last year as "cowards."
She has apologized for the remark, as well she should, but ultimately, her moment of frustration is insignificant next to the question at hand. Mr. O'Malley had it right when he later sought to soften his wife's remark by explaining that sometimes when people are confronted with injustice "we respond with words of hurt rather than words of healing." The legislature now has a historic opportunity to right a painful wrong that has long denied Maryland's gay and lesbian couples the full exercise of their rights as citizens. We urge them to let the healing begin.