ANNAPOLIS – Legislators heard over five hours of emotional testimony in a packed hearing Tuesday on a proposal to put before Maryland voters a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages and civil unions.
Proponents of the ban on gay marriage argued repeatedly that the constitutional amendment would give voters a chance to decide a social issue of overriding importance. Opponents described the bill as an assault on the constitutionally-granted civil liberties of a class of citizens being unfairly discriminated against.
Testimony was interrupted repeatedly by cheers, jeers or comments shouted from the audience. The hearing room, one of the Assembly’s largest, was packed even before the session began and scores were turned away because there was no room inside.
Delegate Donald H. Dwyer, R – Anne Arundel, sponsor of the bill which would put the ban on same sex marriage before the voters in November, vigorously defended his proposal against questions from members of the House Judiciary Committee, dominated by Democrats.
“What we face today is a question of what is law,” Dwyer said, stating that gay marriage is not within “the concept of the laws of nature.”
Republican legislators pushed for the Judiciary Committee to let the bill go to the House floor without a vote, rather than kill it in committee. This would force all members of the House to take a stand on the controversial measure in an election year. The bill was killed in committee last year, a fate they are trying to avoid repeating.
On Monday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. joined the battle when he also called on the General Assembly’s leaders to bring the matter to a vote of the full House on the grounds that “marriage is of such vital important to us all.”
The issue was thrust into the spotlight two weeks ago when a Baltimore Circuit Court Judge struck down the 1973 law barring the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The decision by Judge M. Brooke Murdock has been stayed pending appeal.
At Tuesday’s hearing, parallels were drawn by both sides between civil rights struggles, the formation of the United States, and the issue of same-sex marriage.
“This is a piece of legislation that is about stripping rights away from a group of citizens,” said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland. “Never has our Constitution been amended to strip away the rights of citizens.”
Dwyer said he knows people consider this issue to be a struggle to achieve rights in the way that the struggle for racial equality was, but says that it is unfair to draw such conclusions because he feels that homosexuals choose their sexual orientation.
“There are thousands of former homosexuals who have chosen to no longer live that lifestyle,” he said, generating jeers from several people.”
Anne Arundel Circuit Court Clerk Robert P. Duckworth delivered some of the strongest remarks in favor of the ban.
“If same-sex marriage becomes the law of Maryland,” he said. “I will refuse to perform such marriages.”
The amendment’s supporters, many wearing buttons than read “Defend Maryland Marriage,” appeared to be there in greatest number. The proceedings were interrupted multiple times by the jeering, cheering and laughing to the dismay of Judiciary Committee Chairman, Joseph F. Vallario, Jr., D – Calvert and Prince George’s, who warned the audience many times to quiet down.
Joining those testifying against the proposed amendment were representatives of such groups as the NAACP and the AFL-CIO.
“What you’ve got before you is an unequal rights amendment,” said Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University’s law school in Washington, D.C. “it will turn the clock back.” It was unclear whether the committee would vote on the bill as testimony continued late into the evening.