By Megan Poinski
After three days of delay, the House Judiciary Committee voted 12-10 to send the same-sex marriage bill already passed by Senate to the full House of Delegates at a Friday afternoon voting session. The delegates resisted amendments that would have changed the title of the bill or would further change the definition of marriage to allow incest, polygamy, or civil unions.
The debate – and a last-minute proposal from Del. Tiffany Alston, D-Prince George’s, to transform the bill to one granting civil unions to same-sex couples – produced high drama as the voting session played out. Almost every vote passed or failed on a razor-thin margin, with one or two votes making the difference.
The bill passed in exactly the same form as the one approved by the Senate last week, meaning it could go directly to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk for final approval if it passes the House floor without any changes. Several delegates said that General Assembly “leadership” gave “marching orders” not to amend the bill, and that was one of the biggest bones of contention as the voting session moved forward.
Even though she was a co-sponsor, Alston had been having problems deciding whether to vote for the bill, and she said that she did not feel that the committee process was not what it should be. Saying she “did not want to hurt the process,” she offered an amendment to change the bill from a same-sex marriage bill to one allowing same-sex couples to have civil unions. The amendment failed on a tie vote.
“I understand this is a tough call and tough decision for us all to make,” Alston said. She noted that her community does not support same-sex marriage, but it does support civil unions.
The amendment, Alston said, was a rewrite of a bill previously introduced by Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery County, in a previous year. Simmons said that his bill represented progress at a time when many people were unfamiliar with the concept of same-sex marriage. At that time, he said, there would never have been a vote on same-sex marriage.
However, several of the delegates who voted against the bill thought that the civil-union amendment would be the right step and a middle ground for the state. Del. Michael McDermott, R-Worcester County, said that a civil union would level the playing field, leaving marriage to be the domain of the church.
“The failure to recognize civil unions is a bridge too far,” McDermott said.
However, delegates who supported same-sex marriage labeled the amendment as a “separate but equal” clause on marriage. Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery County, said that it would only allow same-sex couples to get civil unions – which are not always recognized by state and federal governments – and reserved marriage to heterosexual couples.
“This simply denies same-sex couples civil rights,” Dumais said.
Carter passes on a tie vote
When the roll call vote was taken on the amendment, it first split 10-10. Carter, a co-sponsor who had received attention for being unsure of her support of the overall bill, had passed her vote. When prompted to vote to break the tie, after a long silence, she passed a second time.
After the hearing, Carter said that she did not vote because she did not believe in the amendment, but thought the issue deserved more discussion. She also said she did not want the issue to be riding on her vote.
Delegates who did not support the bill decried the fact that the legislation would change the definition of marriage. Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington County, offered some unconventional amendments to prove that point, trying to add polygamy and incest to the definition of marriage. If delegates are comfortable with voting for same-sex marriage, he said they should be able to be comfortable with voting to allow people to marry multiple people of the opposite sex, or members of their families.
“If you’re changing the definition of marriage to be monogamous and about love, we shouldn’t be able to prohibit people from marrying their grandmother or their kids,” Parrott said.
Alston said she felt that Parrott was cheapening the debate. While Parrott withdrew the amendment allowing incestuous marriages, the amendment allowing polygamy was voted on and failed.
Throughout the hearing, several same-sex marriage opponents talked about the issue like its passage was a foregone conclusion, and what they were truly fighting for is an already-talked-about 2012 referendum on the issue. Del. Michael Hough, R-Frederick County, offered two amendments to change the title of the bill, now called the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Hough said calling it the “Same-Sex Marriage Act” or the “Civil Marriage Act” would make the issue clearer for voters on a referendum ballot.