ANNAPOLIS – Sen. Gwendolyn Britt, D-Prince George’s, passed away early Saturday morning leaving behind not only her family, but also an ambitious agenda for the 2008 session that would have continued her lifelong legacy of activism.
Foremost on the agenda was the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would lift Maryland’s ban on same-sex marriage.
The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected efforts to have the ban lifted in September, saying the law was not a denial of equal protection for same-sex couples.
At the time of the decision, Britt said that if the courts would not grant equal rights, she would do it herself in the General Assembly, said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group in the state.
Britt was active in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and Furmansky said her move into the role of main supporter of the same-sex marriage legislation seemed a natural step.
“We couldn’t have had a more appropriate person in the legislature,” said Carrie Evans, director of policy and planning for Equality Maryland. Britt drew on her deep-south protesting days, Evans and Furmansky both said, and used that experience in her role as an outstanding advocate for same-sex rights.
“She always encouraged us to stay the course and not get discouraged,” Furmansky said. He said Britt’s passing could prove detrimental to the bill’s future.
But Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, who sat beside Britt on the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee, said the ultimate effect remained to be seen. Her quiet but hard-working nature made the senator an endearing figure to both sides of the aisle, he said.
“You would say, you know, here’s this liberal Democrat from P.G. County sitting next to a pretty conservative Republican from the Eastern Shore, how could they get along?” Colburn said. “But Gwen could get along with anybody.”
On other fronts, Britt said last week that she had her sights set on issues affecting Maryland’s children and wanted to reexamine the high school assessment program. The assessment is set to become a graduation requirement beginning in 2009 and Britt thought it was important that all children get a fair chance to succeed, including those with special education needs.
But as Britt said, legislation important to children does not stop with education.
Over the past few years her interests had been focused increasingly on children’s health, said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, who served with Britt on the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“She was a strong supporter of improving the quality of education for the youth of our state,” said Pinsky. Outside the classroom, he added, “She was concerned about kids and junk food, and diabetes and other childhood diseases.”
Britt also had begun work on a bill with Delegate Anne R. Kaiser, D-Montgomery, that would improve physical education for disabled students.
“This bill was to create opportunities for kids with disabilities to be able to compete in athletics,” said Kaiser, who served as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families. They had hoped to create a regional athletic program “to help kids be part of a team, help with their self esteem.”
In past sessions Britt also introduced bills focused on domestic violence and legislation granting voting rights to ex-felons. Among the issues she hoped to address this session was repealing the computer services tax instituted during the legislature’s special session in November.
The Maryland Democratic Central Committee will have 30 days to discuss filling Britt’s seat and to choose a candidate. Because the 47th district Britt represented is contained entirely within the limits of Prince George’s County, the county’s Democratic Central Committee will submit only one name to Gov. Martin O’Malley. O’Malley then has 15 days following the submission to appoint Britt’s successor, who will finish the remainder of her term.
Terry L. Speigner, chair of the Prince George’s County Central Committee, said the committee has not yet met to discuss the nomination and he has no one in mind for the position.
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