By Lisa Keen
The Maryland House of Delegates passed a marriage equality bill Friday evening with a bare minimum of 71 votes to 67. But it did so under the threat of a referendum, and it did so just hours after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie followed through on his promise to veto a marriage equality bill passed by that state’s legislature on Thursday.
Visitors crowded into the Maryland House erupted into a loud and sustained cheer as the House clerk noted that 71 delegates had voted for the bill. The vote came after hours of emotional debate that sounded, at times, like a series of sermons – with delegates declaring what they said god has ordained as marriage and warning that same-sex marriage would open the door to polygamy and marriages with children and that it would encourage children to become gay.
Delegate Kathy Afzali, a Republican, said a Democrat in the House begged her to vote against the bill because “it has caused so many churches to split and fracture.” And Republican Michael Smeigiel urged a “no” vote, saying the marriage equality bill would be divisive and that the legislature should give same-sex couples civil unions.
The Maryland Senate, which passed the bill last year and is likely to do so again this year, is expected to vote in the near future. The bill was sponsored by Maryland’s Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley.
A key vote appeared to be that of Delegate Tiffany Alston, a Democrat from suburban Washington, D.C. Alston said she supported the bill last year but that her constituents opposed it so she voted against it. She said she was supporting and voting for the bill this year because the House adopted her amendment to enable a referendum on the issue.
The Alston amendment delays implementation of the new law until any litigation surrounding a possible referendum is resolved and states that, if any part of the law is “held invalid for any reason in a court of competent jurisdiction,” the entire law shall be made null and void.
The bill also won the support of a key Republican, Delegate A. Wade Kach of Baltimore, who backed the bill after getting approval of an amendment moving the effective date of the bill back from October 1 to January 1. Kach said he wanted to ensure that the bill did not have any impact on the November elections.
The House rejected numerous other amendments, including one that would have enabled parents to opt out their children from receiving any sex education that mentioned same-sex marriages; one that prohibited a minor from marrying a person of the same sex; one that sought to require a constitutional amendment allowing same-sex partners to marry; and one that sought to allow for civil unions only.
The vote in the Maryland House of Delegates had been expected on Thursday, Feb. 16, but a flood of amendments and the sudden hospitalization of one of the bill’s supporters pushed that back until Friday. The chamber, which has 141 delegates, needed 71 to pass the bill.
Many opponents of the measure warned during debate that they would seek a referendum on the measure, if passed. Referenda law in Maryland requires that opponents of laws enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor file 55,736 valid signatures by May 31.
In New Jersey, Christie issued a “conditional veto” against the marriage equality bill there, saying it would create an “Ombudsman for Civil Unions” to “ensure equal treatment under the law.”
In New Jersey, supporters of the marriage bill said they would begin the process to seek votes to overturn Gov. Christie’s veto. They will need 27 in the Senate (where the bill passed with 24 votes) and 54 in the Assembly (where it passed with 42). But the legislature can take two years to overturn that veto.
There is little expectation that supporters of the marriage equality law will seek a referendum in New Jersey, as Gov. Christie suggested.
Christie, in his veto statement, said “an issue of this magnitude and importance … requires a constitutional amendment (and) should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide.”
“I continue to encourage the Legislature to trust the people of New Jersey and seek their input by allowing our citizens to vote on a question that represents a profoundly significant societal change,” said Christie. “This is the only path to amend our State Constitution and the best way to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage in our state.”
Unexpectedly, Christie also emphasized his commitment to non-discrimination through his veto statement.
“I have been just as adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples – as well as the strict enforcement of those rights and benefits,” said Christie. “Discrimination should not be tolerated and any complaint alleging a violation of a citizen’s right should be investigated and, if appropriate, remedied. To that end, I include in my conditional veto the creation of a strong Ombudsman for Civil Unions to carry on New Jersey’s strong tradition of tolerance and fairness. The Ombudsman will be charged with increasing awareness of the law regarding civil unions, will provide a clear point of contact for those who have questions or concerns and will be required to report any evidence of the law being violated. In this way, we can ensure equal treatment under the law.”
Lambda Legal Defense still has a lawsuit pending in state court, challenging the validity of the existing civil unions law.