By CHUCK BUTLER & PATRICK WOJAHN
On March 11, the Maryland House of Delegates voted to “recommit” the bill that would have provided marriage equality to same-sex couples, sending the legislation back to committee and effectively ending its chance for passage this year. This came as a bitter disappointment to all who had worked to achieve equal marriage rights in Maryland. As the chairs of Equality Maryland, we take full responsibility for the decision to recommit, and stand by that decision. We want to explain why we believe that, given the circumstances, sending the bill back to committee was the best course of action.
First, let’s put what happened in perspective. Never before have we reached the level of success that we achieved this year in moving marriage legislation through the General Assembly. For the first time ever, the marriage bill made it through committees in both houses of the legislature, passed the Senate and was debated in the House.
At the same time, in the last election, the House of Delegates lost six Democrats, five of whom firmly supported marriage equality. For this reason, we knew that the House would pose a bigger challenge than the Senate in enacting marriage legislation.
It’s understandable that because the marriage bill moved so swiftly through the Senate, many thought the bill would sail through the House. For several reasons, including the results of last year’s election, this didn’t happen. The night before the March 11 vote, House leaders informed us that the bill did not have the 71 votes necessary for passage. They made clear two key issues: first, as time went on, the bill was losing support; second, if the House voted on the bill, certain Delegates who might take a risky “yes” vote to pass a meaningful piece of legislation would vote “no” because they knew the bill would fail. So rather than garnering 68 or 69 votes – still short of the 71 needed – the bill could be defeated with only 50-some votes in support.
We spent the night in discussions among Equality Maryland board and staff, members of the Assembly’s LGBT Caucus, and our national partner organizations, trying to find a way to save the bill. Everyone realized that if the legislature passed the bill, opponents would likely gather sufficient signatures to place a repeal referendum on the next election ballot. The political realities of a referendum meant that, if we didn’t pass the bill in 2011 or 2012, we wouldn’t have another shot until 2015.
So we agreed that if we could not pass the bill this year, we should try again next year. Importantly, House leadership committed to bringing up the bill again in 2012. To preserve our prospects of success, therefore, it was best not to hold a vote now, given the chances of the bill’s defeat by a wide margin. It would be more difficult, within a year, to convert “no” votes to “yes” than to obtain a “yes” from delegates who had not locked in their position with an actual vote.
Those who believe that we had a chance of attaining 71 votes on March 11 are mistaken. Immediately before the House voted to recommit, a whip count revealed that we still lacked 71 votes to pass the bill. Had there been at least 71, the speaker would have held the vote.
We understand the need for clarity and how those who fought so hard for marriage equality deserve an up or down vote on the issue. Equality Maryland’s mission, however, is to achieve equal rights for the state’s LGBT citizens as soon as possible. A vote now would have hurt our chances next year and possibly in 2015 as well.
We thus stand by the decision to recommit the bill. Of course, people can disagree, and we encourage healthy discussion.
We also commend the bill’s co-sponsors in the House and Senate, the LGBT Caucus, the governor, our national partners, and our friends at Alexander & Cleaver for working to advance the bill. We look forward to joining with each next year to achieve the bill’s enactment. In addition, we are proud of Equality Maryland’s staff, led by Morgan Meneses-Sheets, for their impressive dedication. Finally, we want to acknowledge that if not for the efforts of certain board members, the bill never would have progressed as far as it did.
We hope that supporters of equality for LGBT people join us in learning from our experience this year and moving forward in a positive direction.
Chuck Butler is board chair of Equality Maryland; Patrick Wojahn is chair of the Equality Maryland Foundation. Reach them via equalitymaryland.org.