ANNAPOLIS – A Baltimore judge struck down the 1973 Maryland law banning same-sex marriage Friday, ruling that “tradition and social values alone” can not be used to justify discrimination.
Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock stayed action on her own ruling in anticipation of an appeal, which the state Attorney General immediately announced would be forthcoming.
Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wasted no time in expressing disappointment over the decision, as did many politicians of both parties, who will be facing the voters in statewide elections this fall.
“I am evaluating all options available to guarantee that marriage in Maryland remains a protected union between a man and a woman,” the governor said in a statement issued by his office. “I have asked the attorney general to immediately begin a vigorous appeals process.”
But sponsors of the lawsuit expressed delight at the ruling.
“I would say that we are elated that Judge Murdock has confirmed what we have long believed” about the prohibition, “that it is unjust,” said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, which filed the suit along with American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of nine gay couples who applied for, and one person who hoped to apply for, marriage licenses.
The suit was filed against Circuit Court Clerks in five counties who refused to grant marriage licenses to the plaintiffs.
“I think it’s wonderful a judge has taken an approach of fairness,” said Patrick Wojahn, a plaintiff in the case along with partner David Kolesar, “But we have a ways to go before we are certain we have achieved equality.”
In her 20-page ruling, Murdock acknowledged “dramatic impact” of the ruling, but said the court “must not shy away from deciding significant legal issues.”
Specifically, Murdock said, the law was unconstitutional “because it discriminates based on gender against a suspect class; and is not narrowly tailored to serve any compelling governmental interests.”
She added: “When tradition is the guise under which prejudice or animosity hides, it is not a legitimate state interest.”
In 1973 the General Assembly passed the same-sex marriage prohibition, which said only heterosexual marriages are valid in the state. This came several months after Maryland voters ratified a constitutional provision that stated that “the equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged or denied because of sex.”
“We think the judge is completely wrong,” said Lee Merrell, the director of the Christian Coalition of Maryland. “For 30 years the law’s been constitutional and now the law’s been declared not constitutional and the only thing that changed was the judge.”
Not more than two hours after the ruling, legislators got a taste of the political volatility of the issue when a debate over same sex marriage broke out on the floor of the House of Delegates that Speaker Michael E. Busch, D – Anne Arundel, characterized as “high drama.”
Minority Whip Anthony O’Donnell, R – Calvert and Saint Mary’s, was ruled out of order by Busch for repeatedly mentioning the issue of gay marriage during a debate over a House rule change.
“Democracy is not afraid of debate. Tyranny is afraid of debate,” O’Donnell said. “I’m not even sure what I can say and what I can’t.”
O’Donnell later said he believed much of the rancor stemmed from the controversial ruling. He said that Democratic legislators are avoiding the issue because they fear an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman would pass and they do not want to have to declare their positions with a vote.
“It will have a tremendous impact on the next election,” Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R – Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester, said. “The Democrats will have to deal with it. It puts them on record, they have to put their vote up on the board.”
Indeed, Democrats seem inclined to avoid the issue altogether.
“If there’s a court case pending, we’ve been advised over the years that we can’t get involved with an issue,” said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D – Baltimore County.
Sen. Richard E. Colburn, R – Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, has co-sponsored legislation in the past which would establish that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid, and would result in the submission of a constitutional amendment for public vote.
“Marriage between a man and a woman predates government in world history,” he said. “Many have told us that we don’t need a constitutional amendment – that Maryland law states that marriage is between a man and a woman. This judge in Baltimore City is obviously telling us we need a constitutional amendment.” Currently, 19 states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Massachusetts is the only state in the country that allows the practice.