At A Loss For Words Over Same-Sex Marriage
The votes to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland aren't there this year. There may be enough to legalize civil unions, but not if they are called civil unions.
Can't call them domestic partnerships, either. Sorry.
Nope, lawmakers in Annapolis are so hinky about the topic that they can't quite bring themselves to use words that describe what they are creating: a legal construct to give gay couples the rights and benefits that marriage grants heterosexual couples.
Actually, to be more precise, make that lawmaker -- singular. As in C. Anthony Muse, chairman of the Prince George's County Senate delegation and the swing vote on the otherwise evenly split committee that will determine the fate of the same-sex marriage bill. Muse wears two hats in life, and on this issue, they put him at odds with himself.
He is the Rev. Muse, pastor of the Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro, where he is committed to an interpretation of the Bible in which marriage binds a man and a woman. Period. "Unequivocally, I stand for Christian marriage and have no intentions of tampering with that at all," Muse said last week on a Baltimore religious radio show.
And he is Sen. Muse, a black Democrat whose commitment to civil rights leaves him uncomfortable with a reality in which partners in gay relationships are unprotected by the state's laws on inheritance, hospital visitation and property. "What I am for is trying to find a way to make sure every citizen is protected under the law, regardless of their lifestyles," he said on the "Faith in Action" show.
How to square the two perspectives? Muse has turned to Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who is trying to craft a bill to grant equal rights to all partnerships. Muse says he asked Raskin "to help come up with some language that will identify that these are the persons of whom you speak. But it can't be 'civil union,' it can't be 'domestic partnership.' "
"Senator Muse is my buddy," Raskin says. "So we're willing to look for language that might work. There's no end to the variety of names we can come up with to avoid calling it gay marriage. 'Mutual beneficiaries,' 'reciprocal beneficiaries,' 'household partners,' 'household registrants.' What's in a name?"
A name is a measure of comfort and acceptance, and that, in the end, is what this perennial debate is about. The law is generally a lagging indicator of social change, which is why Raskin and Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, which lobbies for gay rights, think that a change in how the state sanctions relationships is inevitable.
If Muse "thinks we're going to get there without creating a statutory recognition for same-sex couples, he's horribly wrong," Furmansky says.
Raskin points to the powerful impact of having an openly gay man in the Senate for the first time. When Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery Democrat, recently asked his colleagues to support a bill redefining marriage to be "between two people" rather than "a man and a woman," he described the painful stigma that he says he and his partner face. At every turn, Madaleno said, they are reminded that although he and his partner had a church wedding seven years ago, "under Maryland's civil law, he is a legal stranger to me."
"Without marriage, instead of security, we have fear," Madaleno said. "The fear that, at the moments we are most vulnerable, afraid and alone, our state could step in and take everything away from us."
Having a colleague who can explain the law's impact "has changed the character of the discussion," Raskin says. "We're going through wrenching cultural change here, in the legislature and in society."
But Muse, while framing the issue as one of civil rights, sees efforts at changing the law to be a threat to the primacy of church teachings. "I believe God loves everyone," he said on the radio (he didn't return my calls.) "But at the same time, I need to stand for what I believe in as a Christian."
Yet Muse has left himself wriggle room. "The state legalizes a number of things that the church does not," he said, citing religious teachings against gambling and alcohol. When many of his colleagues voted to support slots, Muse stood against expanding state-sponsored gambling.
On marriage, as a minister, he sees no possible retreat. As a senator, he is scrambling for an out. Which may be why he has been calling for a statewide referendum on civil unions. "Put it to the voters," he said.
You might call that letting the people decide. Or you might call it passing the buck. But hey, what's in a name?
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