February 24, 2011

Same-sex marriage bill moves closer to passing Senate

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By Barbara Pash
Barbara@MarylandReporter.com

After adopting amendments further removing religious organizations from the issue, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill allowing  same-sex marriage in Maryland on Wednesday with a vote of 25 to 22.

The controversial bill could be coming up before the Senate for final approval as soon as today, said Senate President Mike Miller.

The debate by the full Senate lasted roughly 2 ½ hours, and was tempered by amendments moved, withdrawn, and called out of line.

The bill changes the state’s definition of what constitutes a legal marriage from a man and a woman to two individuals who would not otherwise be prohibited from marrying. The bill does not require officials of religious institutions to solemnize same-sex marriages if they are contrary to their religious beliefs.

As the bill has gone through the process leading to the vote, amendments have been added to it that distance same-sex marriages from the religious interpretation of marriage.

Taking religion out

One amendment literally removed religion from the bill, which started its legislative life as the “Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act.” Sen. C. Anthony Muse,  a  Prince George’s County Democrat and church pastor, removed “Religious Freedom” from the title, saying the edit more clearly identifies the bill’s intent.
“The purpose of the bill is to recognize same-sex marriage,”  said Muse.

Sen. Edward Reilly, an Anne Arundel County Republican, added an amendment allowing fraternal benefit societies to reject members of same-sex married couples, and to deny them members’ insurance benefits.

“We want to protect insurance [providers] from [law] suits because of religious beliefs,”  said Reilly, He said this the amendment was modeled after a similar provision in Vermont, which made same-sex marriage legal in 2009. For example, he said, the Catholic fraternal society Knights of Columbus offers members insurance benefits.

Muse added a second amendment that religious programs, counseling, educational courses, summer camps and retreats cannot be required to promote same-sex marriages.  The amendment was adopted by voice vote.
The three amendments added in the Judicial Proceedings Committee were unanimously added to the bill by the full Senate on Wednesday. They include:

  • Allowing religious entities to refuse to provide services, accommodations, facilities and goods for same-sex marriage without being liable to civil lawsuits.
  • Allowing religious organizations, associations or societies and nonprofits operated or supervised by religious organizations to refuse to provide services, facilities and goods for same-sex marriages if it violates religious beliefs.
  • Identifying the degrees of familial relationships to which the bill applies.

Defeated amendments

Several other amendments proposed from the floor on Wednesday — many dealing with social services allowed for same-sex married couples — were defeated or withdrawn by their sponsors. Sen. Douglas Peters, a Prince George’s County Democrat, introduced an amendment that would exempt adoption agencies and foster care programs from offering their services if same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.

Sen. Christopher Shank,  R-Washington County, backed the amendment, noting that after Massachusetts passed its same-sex marriage law in 2004, the Catholic Church in Boston stopped offering adoptions. “There should be no unintended consequences”  to the bill, Shank said.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor and the floor leader for the bill, argued that  the amendment was not relevant. By Maryland law, even single parents can adopt.

“That has been in effect for 10 years and there have been no complaints,” said Raskin. He said that the church in Boston cooperated with Massachussetts law, to the point of arranging a dozen or so adoptions,  until a story appeared in the Boston Globe and caused a controversy within the Catholic Church.

Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County,  called the amendment “bizarre.” Current law prohibits adoption agencies from discriminating on the basis of several factors,  including sexual orientation.

“This amendment says the agency can opt out,”  he said. “It is completely contradictory”  to the current family law.
The amendment failed with only 17 senators in favor.

Teaching about same-sex marriage

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel County, offered an amendment exempting public school teachers from teaching about same-sex marriage in elementary school, based on their religious beliefs.

Raskin replied that the amendment was a “political statement”, not an “education statement,”  because it starts mandating what can be taught in schools.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County, said that schools in his district are trying to get a handle on bullying and cyber-bullying.

“A lot of that deals with sexual orientation,  and  the schools are looking for ways to combat it,” he said. ”The amendment would not allow the schools to deal” with this issue.

The amendment failed in a 16 to 31 vote.

Miller offered strong caution on the adoption and education amendments.
“We are going way too far with these. They are well  intended but we’re going down a slippery slope,” he said.