ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Flanked by lawmakers and members of a broad coalition of Maryland LGBT leaders, Gov. Martin O’Malley today announced that a law legalizing same-sex marriage would be part of his 2012 legislative package.
After a disappointing 2011 session for marriage equality advocates in Maryland, ending with the death of a Senate-passed marriage bill in the lower house, the governor came out in favor of a bill that he said would address “religious freedom and protect marital equality rights equally under the law.”
O’Malley’s press conference today signals that he may take a more active role in leading on marriage equality legislation. He was criticized earlier this year for not taking a more visible role in support of the 2011 bill.
“I’m supportive of this bill in the upcoming session, and so supportive that I’ve decided to make it one of the handful of bills that will be an administrative priority.”
When asked by a reporter if his own views on marriage equality had changed, the governor said, ”I have always believed in the dignity of every individual. I believe in our own responsibility to advance the greater good. And I also understand that there is a unity of the spirit and matter, and that what we do in our own lifetimes does matter.”
He continued, “As a free and and diverse people of many faiths, we choose to be governed under the law … governed by certain principles and beliefs. Among them, equal protection of the law for every individual and the free exercise of religion free of interference from government. Other states have found a way to protect both of these fundamental beliefs. Therefore in the 2012 legislative session I will sponsor legislation that protects religious freedom and protects marital equality rights equally under the law.”
“I was raised to understand that there are certain things that churches and religions dispense, and that the government should not interfere with defining those,” the governor said when asked about his own evolution on marriage, after previously favoring civil unions rather than full marriage equality. “That’s what we seek to protect, both of those freedoms, that is equality under the law in terms of rights conferred.”
While taking questions, O’Malley emphasized that while he supported civil unions in the past, he’s always believed in equal protection under the law.
“The difficulty that we face as a diverse people was how to enforce a consensus that will protect rights equally under the law,” he said, “the development of that consensus, the ability to come together around marital equality is something that I think is one of the faster moving issues of opinion that we’ve seen in our country for some time.”
He also brought up the victory for marriage equality in New York, and noted that process will influence strategy in Maryland as well.
“Each state learns from the other states,” the governor said. “I would like to think that in New York, they learned from our experience, and we will learn from their experience.”
He continued, “New York showed you could protect religious freedom and you can protect protect rights equally and that’s what we’re going to do with this bill.”
When asked about the influence the momentum from New York had on his decision to hold today’s press conference, O’Malley said the bill’s prospects are stronger because the coalition pushing the bill is much better developed.
“I think the broad nature of this coalition is something I’m very much encouraged by and by the success in New York. It is a fundamental truth that with every accomplishment, further accomplishments appear possible. When New York was able to bring people together—and do it by the way, in a bi-partisan way—and were able to bring into their coalition… a number of religious leaders.” He said, “We still have a lot to do, and this coalition is important, and this is the way to get it done, and certainly New York’s success in accomplishing the marital equality bill in New York was something encouraging to everyone, including myself.”
There had been some speculation within the Maryland LGBT community that a second chance for a 2011 success may surface in the state’s October special session for redistricting, but the governor was quick to dismiss that strategy.
“I think most of us are focused on the upcoming regular session, and I think that time will be well used to broaden this coaltion,” O’Malley said.
When asked what he thought about the possibility of opponents of marriage equality bringing a referendum to the ballot undoing any new law, O’Malley said, “It’s their right under the laws,” but added that he is focused on getting the law passed by a broad coalition of leaders from throughout the civil rights and religious communities so that such efforts would not gain traction.
“I’m very optimistic that if all of us work hard and all of us stay focused on the important principles at stake here, which are freedom of religion and also equal protection under the law,” he continued, “that we can pull together the necessary votes for passage.”
“We know that we have work to do, because it did not work the last time, and that’s why we’re here today. To commit ourselves to that work.”
During the press conference, several lawmakers took the podium to emphasize the size and scope of the new coalition to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the Free State.
“Many during the past session said this was not a civil rights issue,” said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, (D-Montgomery Co). “I don’t see how you can’t look at it as a civil rights issue. You just look at our history—American history, Maryland history—we had laws on the books that discriminated between different races, and right now we have laws on the books that discriminate between two loving people. To me it’s the same exact thing.”
“We had a little bit of courage from one Republican in the Maryland Senate, Allan Kittleman,” the senator continued. “To me this is an issue where Democrats and Republicans should come together.”
“The governor is saying this is what’s right,” said Del. Benjamin Barnes (D-Anne Arundel & Prince George’s County). “We’re a nation founded on equality, and when you deny certain individuals their rights under marriage, you deny them certain fundamental equal rights. This governor is saying this is not just, and we’re going to have equality in the state of Maryland.”
Ezekiel Jackson of the Servicemembers Employee International Union local 1199 of Maryland and the District of Columbia was also on hand to announce the union’s involvement with the coalition taking the lead on passing marriage in 2012. Jackson claims SEIU’s membership on the coalition makes sense because families should not have to leave the state of Maryland in order to get married and take advantage of the benefits marriage affords.
“Anytime we look at a situation where residents are spending money outside of Maryland, we rush to find ways to keep that money in Maryland,” Jackson said. “Why can’t we do the same thing with families?”
Many members of the Maryland LGBT Caucus were on hand to praise the governor as well, including Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery County), and Del. Maggie McIntosh.
The only openly gay member of the Senate, Madaleno enthusiastically took the microphone to praise O’Malley for pledging to lead in passing marriage equality in Maryland.
“This is probably going to be the second most exciting moment that I have had in this room,” Sen. Madaleno said. “And it will only be surpassed by the moment within the next nine months that we will stand here, with [the governor], pen in hand, to sign into law the marriage equality bill.”
“Maryland, in history, is the seventh state in the union to have embraced the Constitution,” Madaleno pointed out. “And in the next nine months, we will be the seventh state in this country to embrace marriage equality.”
Del. McIntosh, Maryland’s first openly gay lawmaker, and former majority leader, has known O’Malley throughout his political career, beginning with his time on the Baltimore City Council. “All of us in the legislature who are openly gay members would like to thank you for your leadership, Gov. O’Malley,” she said at the press conference. “Your sponsorship and your willingness to continue toward marriage equality in Maryland means so much to so many families in Maryland. So we’re going to win!”
When asked how the LGBT Caucus is mapping out its strategy with the governor and who has taken the lead, McIntosh told the Blade that, while the members of the LGBT Caucus have yet to meet with the governor over this bill, officially, she and Madaleno have been working with the governor’s chief legislative officer, Joe Bryce.
“Obviously Sen. Mandeleno and I have had conversations with the governor, and many of our colleagues have had conversations with the governor urging him to take the lead,” McIntosh said. “We will work with Joe Bryce going forward, probably looking at the New York law, looking at ours—ours was only two or three votes short—so is there something we can tweak. We have to all be on the same wavelength about that. But we will introduce a bill, and I think we will absolutely work with his office hand-in-hand to get the legislation passed.”
“We were working closely with members of the LGBT Caucus and other supporters of marriage equality last session earlier this year,” Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Blade. “And now we work very closely with the GLBT delegates, and working with Progressive Maryland and others. If there’s a difference between earlier this year and today, it’s a much broader and deeper coalition. And now with the support of the governor, clearly we have a much better chance of getting this passed next session.”
Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a new group, announced last week a major coalition to begin a statewide effort to press for passage of a marriage equality bill in 2012. The coalition includes Progressive Maryland, 1199 Service Employees International Union, Communications Workers of America, American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Equality Maryland, the Human Rights Campaign, Pride in Faith, Maryland Black Family Alliance and Catholics for Equality.