ANNAPOLIS – In a session that sounded like the laugh track of a TV sitcom, the Maryland House of Delegates Friday voted 82 to 46 to outlaw first-cousin marriages in the state.
Though delegates at times dampened the mood with serious questions on the bill’s merits, rollicking laughter and stifled guffaws prevailed in the chamber.
Lawmakers – and Marylanders in general – can’t seem to stop giggling when the topic comes up: A progressive state like Maryland condoning a practice long associated with backward cretins?
At least one delegate wasn’t laughing.
Delegate Van Mitchell, D-Charles, stood up and admitted to an ancestral close encounter of the cousin kind, a move that brought the rowdy 140-strong chamber to a hush.
“If this bill was in effect in 1918,” said Mitchell, “I don’t think I’d be here.”
Delegate Joseph Vallario, Jr., D-Prince George’s, came to the rescue.
“This bill is not retroactive,” Vallario replied, breaking the awkward silence – and drawing roars of laughter from the lawmakers.
Vallario, chairman of the committee that gave the bill a “favorable” report, was the focal point for legislators’ questions.
Despite the chuckles, Delegate Henry B. Heller, D-Montgomery, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he introduced the measure to force kissing cousins to consider the serious implications of genetic law.
Heller, a retired special education administrator, said children of first-cousin marriages face a higher risk of learning disorders, complicating the learning process for the children and their teachers.
“We don’t need to play Russian roulette with genetics,” Heller has said.
Laws already on the books forbid Marylanders from marrying their grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and various other permutations of relations.
If the Senate approves Heller’s bill this session – and the governor signs it into law – first cousins will be added to the list of taboo ties.
Lawbreakers, in addition to having their marriage voided, could be charged a $500 fine, according to Vallario.
Responding to a question about birth defects, Vallario told Delegate George Owings III, D-Calvert, that 1-in-32 children born to first-cousin partners are at risk, compared to the national average of 1-in-100,000 for non-blood-related parents.
Heller said the worst case is that the children would have a 1- in-16 chance of birth defects.
But some close-knit cousins may not want children.
Delegate Nancy Stocksdale, R-Carroll, asked Vallario if the new law would permit first cousins beyond the childbearing years get married.
Vallario said it wouldn’t, as written.
But possibly a bigger issue with Stocksdale was whether or not the bill was needed at all.
“The numbers (of first cousins getting married) are not large, is that true?” Stocksdale asked.
Vallario said he heard Garrett County does about one a year – prompting House members to once again dissolve in laughter.
Capital News Service earlier reported that a high percentage of Garrett marriages are among couples from other states, including West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where cousin couplings are banned.
Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, brought his maul-sized gavel down with a crack.
“Will the House please come to order!” Taylor implored, possibly in an attempt protect the reputation of his neighboring county. And with that, the House was quiet – until the next volley of snickers slipped out. – 30 – CNS-3-3-00