By SHAUNA MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 29, 2010) - Delegate Emmett Burns, D-Baltimore County, said Thursday that his bill barring recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages was "not discriminatory."
Burns dismissed criticism by gay-rights advocates at a packed House Judiciary hearing on his bill, citing his longtime commitment to civil rights for African-Americans.
"I would not have been able to sit here as a member of the General Assembly during segregation, based on the color of my skin," he said during testimony. "But gays and lesbians could. No one asked their sexual orientation when they ran for office. I cannot hide my color. ... To say the two are on equal par is anathema to me."
Burns introduced House Bill 90 this month as neighboring Washington prepares to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in March.
"There's an urgency now that wasn't there before," Burns said. "It doesn't get much closer to Maryland than this."
The legalization of same-sex marriage in five states and the District of Columbia has exposed a hole in Maryland's marriage laws. While state statute has defined marriage as between a man and woman since 1973, the state's current practice on recognizing out-of-state unions does not account for gender.
However, the state is not currently recognizing out-of-state, same-sex marriages.
Last May, Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, asked state Attorney General Douglas Gansler to issue an opinion on the matter. The opinion is expected later this year.
More than 20 people testified against Burns' bill, including Candace Gingrich-Jones, sister of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Five people including Burns spoke in support.
Though much of the testimony examined the legal issues surrounding the ban, discussion in the standing-room-only hearing ranged from personal stories to theology to civil rights history.
Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, pointed out that Julian Bond, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had spoken in support of gay rights.
"Julian Bond does not speak for me," said Burns.
Delegate Ben Barnes, D-Prince George's, said he opposed the bill on the grounds that marriage is a civil rights issue.
"Any right given by the government is a civil right," Barnes said. "Did the government give you the right to visit your wife in the hospital and collect your wife's pension benefits? All the rights given to you as a married couple, weren't they civil rights?"
David Rocah, a lawyer with the ACLU, said while the issue of same-sex marriage is a contentious one, the issue presented by Burns' bill is contractual.
"Nothing about House Bill 90 will change whether Maryland legalizes same-sex marriage," Rocah said. "If Maryland recognizes out-of-state (same-sex) marriages, Maryland's laws will not change."
"It has been the default rule in Maryland to treat valid out-of-state marriages as valid in Maryland," Rocah said. "People who are married in one state should not be suddenly treated as unmarried because they move across state lines."
Delegate Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, said in an interview that Burns' bill was necessary for exactly this reason.
"Maryland's law is crystal clear that marriage is only between a man and a woman," Dwyer said. "For (the attorney general) to issue an opinion that is contrary to that is a violation of his oath of office, and he will be held accountable."
In 2006, Dwyer introduced a resolution impeaching Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock. Murdock had ruled that barring same-sex marriage violated the state constitution's Equal Rights Amendment.
"Marriage and procreation are the basis of a moral and civil society," Dwyer said in an interview. "As far as the homosexuals and their sexual preferences, just don't make it my business. Do what you want in the privacy of your own home. Just don't ask me to legalize it."
But Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said opposition to Burns' bill is not about legalizing same-sex marriage, but about enforcing existing law.
"This bill is not asking you to prevent me and Deborah from being able to marry in the state of Maryland," she said. "Maryland law already does that."
Mizeur and her wife, Deborah Mizeur, had their formal marriage ceremony in Maryland in 2005. They were later married in a 2008 civil ceremony in California. The marriage is still considered legal in that state, in the district, and in six other states, but not in Maryland.
"In Pasadena, California, 3,000 miles away from here, we are treated as a married couple. In Pasadena, Maryland, we are not," she said. "In Cambridge, Massachusetts, our marriage would protect us if life were to deal us a bad hand. In Cambridge, Maryland, we are two unrelated women with some very expensive legal documents and a lot of uncertainty."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.