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The Maryland marriage bill, religious exemptions and a possible shift in attitude

Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

Three nights ago, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced a marriage equality bill in his state’s legislature.  On Tuesday, he held a press conference with LGBT advocates and religious leaders, among them the Rev. Delman Coates, an unlikely supporter of marriage equality.

Rev. Coates does not personally support gay marriage.  His church, Mt. Ennon Baptist in Prince George’s County, will probably not be the site of a gay wedding for quite some time.   Yet Coates stood next to Gov. O’Malley on Tuesday and announced that he supports Maryland’s marriage equality bill and is confident his church will not be asked to solemnize a union it does not recognize.  “I think everyone is protected here,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with same-sex marriage as a matter of personal religious choice.”

This kind of support may be absolutely critical if Maryland’s bill is going to make any headway this session.  The unexpected failure of a marriage equality measure in the Maryland House of Delegates last year was due in part to lawmakers who withdrew or withheld their support for the bill because of pressure from religious institutions in their communities.

As the Baltimore Sun reports, this year’s bill has four significant changes from last year’s:

It is now stated that religious leaders, as well as their institutions, are protected from lawsuits; that the state can’t withhold funds to penalize a religious institution that does not recognize same-sex marriages; and that the state can’t dictate religious doctrine. There also is an attempt to clarify that some programs run by religious institutions can exclude same-sex couples.

Passage in the House this year is still uncertain, and it is likely that the issue will be passed on to a voter referendum if the bill does pass.  Still, Rev. Coates’s position is significant and, I hope, may be part of a trend in the attitudes of those who are uncomfortable with gay marriage.  When Washington Senator Mary Margaret Haugen announced that she would support Washington’s marriage equality bill, she said in a statement that her personal faith-based opposition to gay marriage had not changed, but that she had decided that she could not cite her personal views in denying others the right to their own views.  “My beliefs dictate who I am and how I live,” Haugen said, “but I don’t see where my believing marriage is between a man and a woman gives me the right to decide that for everyone else.”

I certainly don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t continue to strive to change the hearts and minds of those who oppose gay marriage.  But in this case, the distinction between the terms ‘gay marriage’ and ‘marriage equality’ is important.  We can be clear that while we wish to show that same-sex unions are just as important and valid as heterosexual ones, we also affirm that marriage equality is fundamentally about the right to have access to marriage and to have the choice of marrying.  If we frame marriage equality as a battle to provide equal rights and access to all individuals to enter into the marriages they choose, we can work to gain the support of more people like Rev. Coates and Sen. Haugen, who may not personally support gay marriage but will stand up so that gay couples can have their relationships fully recognized.  If we do so, marriage equality can and should be a big tent issue.


  • 1. Steve  |  January 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    This wouldn't be such a problem if religion didn't have its dirty hands in so many secular activities. But they are way, way too involved in social and public programs for such wide-ranging exemptions.

    Not performing weddings is at far as it should go. But a religiously affiliated school or hospital for example can't be covered by such laws. That just opens the door for abuse

  • 2. Seth from Maryland  |  January 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Breaking News Washington Gay Marriage Bill Clears Senate CommitteeThe marriage equality bill in Washington State moved one step closer to becoming law Thursday when a Senate committee advanced the measure to the floor for a vote.According to the Associated Press, “The Government Operations, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee approved the measure with a 4-3 voice vote split on party lines. The bill is expected to head to a floor vote next, though a date has not yet been determined.”

  • 3. Fr. Bill  |  January 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Am I reading this correctly that church sponsored hospitals, for example, need not recognize the same-gender marriages of their patients (e.g. consent or visiting) or their employees (e.g. health insurance coverage of spouse)? If they do so discriminate they are immune from suit? If so, that is outrageous and goes WAY beyond protecting their religious views. Since the RC Church is quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying even this will not dissuade them from opposing same-gender marriage, I say to hell with these concessions to bigotry. (I wonder if they check to see if their heterosexual married employees marriages conform to church doctrine.

  • 4. Lesbians Love Boies  |  January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Doesn't federal law stump state law?

  • 5. rick  |  January 26, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I recently saw an idea in terms of describing marriage to help get around all of these religious roadblocks:

    CIVIL MARRIAGE: open to everyone and recognized by the government.

    SACRED MARRIAGE: closed to anyone a religion wants to discriminate against.

  • 6. truthspew  |  January 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Those exceptions are a little too much like RI's flawed civil union bill.

    For example:
    15-3.1-5. Civil union certification. — Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to
    16 require any ordained clergy or elder in good standing authorized under this chapter to certify a
    17 civil union and no such authorized person who fails or refuses to certify persons in a civil union
    18 shall be subject to fine, penalty, or other cause of action for failure or refusal to certify the civil
    19 union.

    That part "or other cause of action" is scary!

  • 7. Bill S.  |  January 27, 2012 at 5:23 am

    I've said it once and I'll say it again: The RI civil unions bill would have been PERFECT fodder for a court case. It would first have to go through the state courts, and if that failed then the federal court, but I think we could have easily gotten a favorable ruling from a District Court, if not the State Supreme Court. Gov. Chaffee would not appeal a favorable decision. Although we may be too far along in his term now to count on him still being governor if the case got to federal court.

    The Civil Unions bill explicitly legalizes discrimination against, and only against, same-sex civil unioned couples. No married couple would ever be allowed to be subject to this discrimination. If a Hindu man got sent to a Catholic hospital in an emergency, the staff would have to recognize his wife as a spouse. If the same thing happened to a gay man, his civil union parter could be treated as a legal stranger by them.

    It's much harder to argue you have the right to same-sex marriage when you're starting with nothing. However, when you're challenging an already existing law whose sole purpose is to create an inferior status for an unpopular minority, you have the perfect ammunition for a 14th Amendment victory.

  • 8. Gregory in SLC  |  January 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    What is Don Dwyer so afraid of? And whatever happened to separation of church and state?

    @ Another opponent, Republican Del. Don Dwyer of Anne Arundel County, said he's going to work "every hour of every day" to defeat the same-sex marriage bill. "It is my only legislative agenda. Period," he said. (from the Baltimore Sun article mentioned above)

  • 9. Josh  |  January 26, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I really like the support and common sense from Rev. Coates. I hope more sensible people will do the same.

  • 10. I_T  |  January 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Some discussion of the<A HREF="… interface of "religious freedom" and civil rights here.

    Basically, if orthodox Jews are not allowed to segregate women in public buses, and Roman catholics do not deny civilliy remarried divorced people benefits, how can they separate off gays as particularly bad?

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