By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS (March 12, 2009)—Supporters of same-sex marriage argued that the issue is a civil right during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday.
But opponents said that allowing homosexuals to marry is "unnatural" and would undermine the institution of marriage.
One bill heard before the committee would open the door to the recognition of same-sex marriages in the state by amending Maryland's current statute to apply to any two individuals not otherwise prohibited by law.
A second bill called for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Marylanders would vote on the issue in the November 2010 general election.
For Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor of the first bill, the issue was personal.
Mizeur said she and her spouse, Deborah Mizeur, were married three years ago on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. She described her family as "pretty much like any other mundane couple in Maryland."
"The only thing that distinguishes my family from any others is that we're not treated the same under the law," Mizeur said.
Without a recognized marriage, same-sex couples in Maryland do not share many of the rights of married couples, including tax-filing and inheritance rights. Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed covering health benefits to state employees' domestic partners and dependents as part of the 2010 budget.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which testified on behalf of expanding the definition of marriage, more than 400 state laws and 1,000 federal laws are tied to marriage.
But the Rev. Pierre Bynum, chaplain and national prayer director for the Family Research Council, said that the first bill would undermine the institution of marriage and adversely affect children.
"Homosexual marriage would dilute the strength of marriage in our society," he said. He described homosexual marriage as "unnatural" and homosexual relationships as "anomalies."
"There's a difference between society tolerating anomalies and making an anomaly mainstream," he said before the hearing.
Richard Cohen, director of the International Healing Foundation in Prince George's County, said that he struggled with same-sex attractions decades ago before undergoing therapy.
"I'm happy to tell you all that I came out straight," he said.
Many of the proponents of allowing gay marriage saw it as a civil rights issue.
Travis Britt, the husband of former Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, D-Prince George's, who had been a co-sponsor of a similar bill before her death, also testified. Britt recounted his experiences during the Civil Rights movement, which included being beaten by a mob in Liberty, Miss., and spending 40 days in jail.
"Civil rights for gays and lesbians are just as important as civil rights for anyone else," he said.
Delegate Don Dwyer Jr., R-Anne Arundel, the lead sponsor of the bill to amend the constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, objected to gay marriage being depicted as a civil rights issue.
"Well, I can tell you, I've met many a former homosexual, and I have yet to meet a former African-American," he said.
Attorney General Douglas Gansler said the issue was ultimately about equality. If it didn't happen this year, it would happen eventually, he said.
"Twenty years from now, and hopefully way less than that, we will have marriage equality in every state in the United States," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.