Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007

Same-sex marriage decision may split state Democrats

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ANNAPOLIS — The next chapter in the quest for equal rights for same-sex couples could split Democrats, as lawmakers question whether there are enough votes in either chamber to resolve a matter that the courts left up to the General Assembly.

‘‘It will be an issue, but I think it’s an issue whose time has not yet come,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach told The Gazette. ‘‘For a law like that to move forward, there needs to be a strong body of public opinion, and I don’t think it’s there yet in a state of moderate temperament like Maryland.”

In September, the Court of Appeals upheld the state’s 34-year-old ban on same-sex marriage, ruling that the law is neither discriminatory nor unconstitutional. The court also said the General Assembly may be the best avenue to change the law.

Ever since, advocates have been gearing up to take their fight to the legislature.

‘‘I think our two biggest challenges are political skittishness by some legislators and general ignorance about the issue,” said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, an advocacy group for gay rights.

The advocates’ toughest test could be wooing conservative and moderate Democrats.

‘‘I think that marriage equality will mirror every contentious social issue that the Democratic Party faces. This is a flashpoint issue,” Furmansky said. ‘‘These elected officials are sent to Annapolis to make life better for all of their constituents, and they need to address the problems that same-sex couples face because they’re treated like legal strangers.”

Lawmakers say it won’t be simple.

‘‘The divisions have always been lying out there and concealed in plain view,” said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville. ‘‘And they will, I’m sure, re-emerge again on that issue.”

Rifts within the Democratic Party that deepened during the special session over tax increases are less explosive than the divide on social issues such as gay marriage, Simmons said.

‘‘I do think that there is an uneasy alliance between liberal Democrats and the more moderate or conservative Democrats in the state, and I think that it has worked because of the relative unity on economic issues.”

Others say economic policy and social policy are two very different animals.

‘‘I think the fiscal issues and the cultural issues do not necessarily cut across the political spectrum at the same angle,” said Sen. Jamin B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring, a gay rights supporter who suggested that some opponents of the tax increases could support same-sex marriage.

One reason for a possible intraparty battle is because religion enters the debate. Two lawmakers, who are both ministers — Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington and Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Dist. 10) of Woodlawn — are likely to oppose marriage equality.

Same-sex marriage is sure to be a very personal issue for many lawmakers, Furmansky conceded. ‘‘Ultimately, this issue is going to hit a nerve in the most sensitive areas for people, including religion, civil rights and basic moral clarity and fairness.”

The issue could also divide the traditionally unified Legislative Black Caucus. In October, the Black Family Alliance, a group of black ministers, politicians and others, including Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Dist. 47) of Landover Hills, called on African Americans to support same-sex marriage, a stance that breaks with traditional African-American community and church standards.

‘‘The caucus won’t be speaking with one voice,” said Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore, a former caucus chairman who isn’t convinced that a same-sex marriage bill will even reach the floor because Democrats lack consensus.

That shouldn’t mean legislation should be shelved, said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who is gay. ‘‘The fundamental question in this debate is how do we get equal justice under the law. There aren’t many permutations to that answer.”

Whatever is proposed will probably be a constitutional amendment that requires a supermajority in both chambers. Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda said he doesn’t think there are 29 votes in his chamber to either allow or outlaw same-sex marriages.

Still, advocates remain cautiously optimistic.

‘‘Any issue can get caught up in politics in Annapolis, so we’ll put our best game forward and remind people that lives are hanging in the balance on this one,” Mizeur said.

The end result won’t fracture Democrats, Frosh said.

‘‘We have lots of issues where there is not unanimity. This is just another one, and I’m pretty sure we’ll keep moving forward as a party.”