Bills calling for legalizing same-sex marriage and banning discrimination against transgender persons are among the hot-button issues set to emerge next week when the Maryland State Legislature begins its 2012 session.
Officials with an expanded coalition backing the marriage bill and a new transgender advocacy group leading the effort on behalf of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act say they are hopeful that the legislature will pass both measures before it adjourns for the year in April.
“It’s all hands on deck with both bills,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of the statewide LGBT group Equality Maryland. “We’re talking to many lawmakers, including Republicans.”
Evans and others working on the two bills were cautious about predicting when leaders of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates will bring the measures up for a vote, saying control over the timing of the bills was exclusively in the hands of the lawmakers.
Supporters were also cautious about disclosing strategy for defeating an expected voter referendum that experts say will almost certainly be brought before the electorate in November – in the midst of the U.S. presidential election – if the Maryland Legislature passes a marriage bill this spring.
Public opinion polls show voters in the state are evenly divided over whether to vote for or against same-sex marriage.
Under rules of the Maryland Legislature, the committees with jurisdiction over the bills must hold a public hearing on the marriage and gender identity bills, even though the two bills were the subject of lengthy and contentious hearings less than a year ago during the legislature’s 2011 session.
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the marriage bill last March in what supporters called an historic 25-21 vote. But the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates killed the measure for the year by voting to send it back to committee after supporters determined they were a few votes short of the 71 votes needed to pass it in the 141-member House.
In what some called an ironic twist, the House of Delegates passed the transgender bill last year before the Senate killed it by voting to send it back to a Senate committee. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George’s and Calvert Counties) reportedly orchestrated the decision to hold off on a Senate vote, saying a number of key supporters changed their minds and threatened to vote against the bill.
Shortly after the defeat of the marriage bill last year, supporters led by the Human Rights Campaign formed Marylanders for Marriage Equality, an expanded coalition of organizations with a track record of political clout with state lawmakers. Among the coalition partners are the NAACP of Baltimore, the Maryland ACLU, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Equality Maryland and HRC are also members of the coalition.
Coalition spokesperson Kevin Nix of HRC has said each coalition partner brings unique skills and expertise to the lobbying effort on behalf of the marriage bill.
But coalition officials haven’t disclosed which, if any, lawmakers who were uncommitted or against the bill last year have indicated support this time around.
“The good news and the bad news is the legislators are the same,” said Mark McLaurin, a gay man who serves as political director for the Local 500 of the SEIU of Maryland.
He noted that having the same players is helpful to a degree because they are already informed on the marriage and transgender bills. But McLaurin cautioned that with no election taking place since the 2011 legislative session, it may be hard to line up the additional supporters needed to pass the bills.
“Quite frankly, despite the great work that’s been done since the last session, I haven’t heard very many announced conversions from no to yes,” he said. “So in many respects I feel we’re in the same place that we were.”
Like others lobbying for the marriage bill, McLaurin said he is hopeful that Gov. Martin O’Malley’s decision to include the marriage and transgender bills as part of his legislative package this year will provide an important boost for both measures.
McLaurin, a former board member of Equality Maryland, criticized LGBT advocates and supportive lawmakers last year for their decision to withdraw the marriage bill from the House rather than bring it up for a vote. He said a vote would have helped in the lobbying efforts this year by identifying for certain where lawmakers stand on the marriage measure.
Other supporters disagree with that view, saying a vote last year would have forced wavering House members to take a position, possibly against the bill, making it more difficult for them to vote for it this year without being labeled as “flip-floppers.”
Veteran transgender advocate Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, the newly formed statewide group, said a number of important developments since the transgender bill died in the legislature last year have given the bill “great momentum” this year.
Among the developments are O’Malley’s strong endorsement of the bill and his pledge to make it one of his legislative priorities, said Beyer. She noted that O’Malley responded, in part, to the flurry of publicity surrounding the beating of transgender woman Chrissy Lee Polis at a McDonald’s restaurant outside Baltimore in April. The beating, which was captured on video taken by a McDonald’s employee, created a national sensation and boosted support in Maryland for transgender non-discrimination legislation.
In two other developments, the Howard County, Md., legislature passed a gender identity non-discrimination bill in December and the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that same month that a transgender woman fired from her job in Georgia was protected from discrimination by the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause barring gender-related discrimination.
“All of these things are giving this bill tremendous momentum,” Beyer said. “I feel really good about where things stand.”
Opposition to the marriage bill, coordinated last year by the National Organization for Marriage, is being spearheaded this year by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a state coalition with ties to NOM.
“Special interest groups are pressuring politicians in Annapolis to redefine marriage in Maryland – despite the strong opposition of a majority of Maryland citizens,” the group says on its website. “A large outcry throughout the state convinced our elected officials last year to reject this drastic action, but the threat is raising its head again,” the web message says.
The group is calling on Marylanders to send contributions to support its effort to oppose the marriage equality bill and to “protect” marriage as a union of “one man and one woman.”
It has announced plans for a rally against the bill in Annapolis early this year and is encouraging churches to call on their congregations to oppose the bill on a regular basis during Sunday sermons.
Supporters of the marriage bill say the approval of a similar bill by the New York Legislature last year, under the strong leadership of New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, would also help the effort in Maryland.
Leaders of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, including HRC officials involved with the coalition, have yet to disclose their views on possible changes in the wording of the Maryland bill. But speculation has surfaced that O’Malley and supportive lawmakers in the legislature might follow Cuomo’s decision to add a new provision to expand the bill’s exemption for religious organizations.
Cuomo reportedly persuaded some wavering lawmakers to support the New York marriage bill by agreeing to add a provision that allows religious organizations other than churches, including some businesses, to refuse to rent their facilities or provide services, such as catering or the sale of wedding gowns, for same-sex marriages.
Gay rights groups that had been opposed to such exemptions went along with Cuomo’s backing of the exemptions.
When asked about a possible broadening of the religious exemption provision of the Maryland marriage bill, Nix, the spokesperson for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, said only, “Governor O’Malley is committed to ensuring that religious institutions are protected under Maryland law.”
Equality Maryland, meanwhile, announced this week a series of events and activities it will sponsor to push for the marriage bill. Among them are nightly phone banks staffed by volunteers across the state; a Feb. 1 prayer breakfast and Clergy Lobby Day in Annapolis; and a Feb. 13 lobby day in Annapolis in which LGBT advocates from across the state will visit their representatives to urge support for the marriage bill.
“Equality Maryland will also work with Gender Rights Maryland to pass a bill that will add protections in existing anti-discrimination laws for transgender individuals,” according to a statement issued this week by Equality Maryland.