There’s been much hard earned celebrating in D.C. this week, as the first same-sex couples obtained marriage license applications. The first wedding ceremonies are scheduled to be held next Tuesday.
This was a long and hard road, with the groundwork laid decades ago, election by election, until a supportive Council, mayor and electorate were ready to walk the aisle. Congratulations to all the activists and politicians who worked so hard for this day and to the couples who finally will enjoy at least some of the rights and responsibilities of marriage.
Of course, there are pitfalls ahead. If Republicans retake either the House or Senate in 2010 (or beyond) there’s the likelihood that conservative lawmakers will try to interfere with D.C.’s marriage law via the appropriations process. They’ve done it before with the city’s domestic partner program and needle exchange laws, so there’s no reason to expect Sam Brownback and his ilk to look the other way on marriage.
As the excitement of the moment fades, reality will set in. For some couples, that reality will inevitably include divorce, so it’s imperative that couples take this step seriously and consult lawyers and their accountants before rushing into a marriage just to prove a political point.
And couples that marry in D.C. (or in the handful of other U.S. jurisdictions that allow it) are not entitled to the federal benefits of marriage. That will require repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, something that this spineless Congress will not attempt anytime soon.
The status of LGBT rights in D.C.’s bordering states of Virginia and Maryland highlights the need for federal action. Without it, D.C. couples that hop the Metro and ride into Maryland or Virginia go from legally married to complete strangers in the eyes of the law upon leaving the city. Although Virginia is a lost cause for the next four years following the election of conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell and anti-gay Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, there are glimmers of hope in Maryland.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler last week issued a long-awaited opinion that the state may recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages. The operative word is “may.” It appears that a court ruling or legislation will be required to clarify the law and spell out the rights afforded to same-sex couples.
Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, urged state residents with legal marriage licenses from other jurisdictions to start demanding various rights that come with those marriages.
“This is a thorough opinion, and more comprehensive than we expected,” she said. “… Those Marylanders with valid licenses should go to their employers to have their rights recognized.”
Meneses-Sheets said she expects state agencies to begin honoring same-sex marriages immediately but conceded that getting private entities to comply will likely require litigation.
She cited the right of partners of state workers to inherit pensions as one key area to watch. State employees, including those who work in potentially dangerous jobs like law enforcement and firefighting, cannot leave pensions to their partners. Under Gansler’s opinion, that could change, as state agencies are required to comply with state law.
“There are still questions to be answered,” Meneses-Sheets said. “But this increases momentum for full equality in Maryland.” She added that the opinion doesn’t change her group’s strategy, which likely includes pushing for a full marriage bill again in 2011, and noted the opinion “creates a better foundation for our legislative work.”
State Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), who is gay, requested Gansler’s review of the law nine months ago and Gansler had come under fire — from the left and right — for the delay in releasing it.
There were reports of much behind-the-scenes angst over the opinion, including what exactly it should say and even who should write it. But hopes among LGBT rights supporters were high, given Gansler’s past support for marriage equality, a sharp contrast to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who privately told gay supporters he backed marriage rights during his campaign but then denied it after the state’s high court ruled against gay and lesbian plaintiffs in 2007.
O’Malley has been wishy-washy about his personal views on marriage rights, even though a Baltimore TV station caught him endorsing same-sex marriage on camera years ago. Following Gansler’s opinion, O’Malley released a written statement that, “I expect all State agencies to work with the Attorney General’s office to ensure compliance with the law.” Not exactly a bold stance or ringing endorsement. O’Malley was later quoted by the Washington Examiner as saying Gansler’s opinion “makes sense.”
The Maryland-D.C.-Northern Virginia region is a megalopolis with people living, working, socializing and commuting in and among two states and the District, which makes this patchwork approach to recognizing same-sex relationships more complicated and a likely legal battleground in the years ahead.
So let us celebrate this important milestone in Washington with an eye toward protecting these advances and expanding them to those in other states who aren’t so lucky to live in a place where lawmakers, the mayor, many religious leaders and everyday citizens recognize the value of our loving relationships.