Monday, May 19, 2008

Calif. Ruling Validates Equality Maryland's Strategy

By Steve Charing

Like so many gays and lesbians who read or heard the landmark ruling by the California Supreme Court that overthrew that state’s ban on same-sex marriage, I was ecstatic. Three questions immediately came to my mind: 1) why couldn’t the Maryland’s Court of Appeals be as wise and fair-minded as the California court? 2) how will this ruling impact our struggle for marriage equality in Maryland? and 3) how would this affect the presidential campaign? I will discuss the latter in a future column.

The California’s court decision, in which 6 of the 7 justices were Republican appointees, sent shock waves throughout the country: "These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish—with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her life—an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage," Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the Court’s 4-3 majority.

After reading these words, I concluded unequivocally that the controversial strategy employed by Equality Maryland, the state’s principal LGBT civil rights advocacy group, was correct all along.

The organization had been criticized by some in the gay press and letter writers for their so-called "all or nothing" strategy that failed to produce a civil unions bill during the 2008 General Assembly, much less one that legalized same-sex marriage. (Two important but smaller domestic partner bills passed and at press time were awaiting the Governor’s signature.)

I, along with others, had originally believed we should try to achieve some lesser victory in the short term as opposed to waiting for a limitless number of years to see marriage equality become a reality, if it actually would at all. I knew that civil unions was a "separate but unequal" concept, but wouldn’t securing some rights now be better than none at all? Perhaps it would lead to full marriage equality.

Although I hadn’t fully bought in on Equality Maryland’s strategy, I did not join the critics. It has been a meandering journey for me as it has been for many gays and lesbians—negotiating sharp turns, sidestepping potholes, skirting around detours, and making some U-turns before I settled on the position that full marriage equality must be unquestionably the ultimate goal. This was helped not only by the events in California but was also shaped by Dan Furmansky, Equality Maryland’s executive director.

Last October, following the Maryland high court’s dismal ruling, I had interviewed Furmansky for Baltimore OUTloud to ascertain the strategy going forward. In response to my question as to why not go for civil unions if that would be more attainable, he replied:

"We must remember that these alternative legal mechanisms (civil unions, domestic partnerships for same-sex couples) have deliberately been created both to approximate and withhold marriage itself. Real-life application of these mechanisms has shown that such separate alternatives do not provide equal access to the tangible and intangible protections, security, clarity, and respect that only comes with marriage."

And Furmansky was on point when he said, "Starting out the legislative process to win marriage by asking for an alternative legal mechanism that is intended to deliberately withhold marriage from same-sex couples does not make sense, either politically or philosophically."

These thoughts and other arguments coincide with the judgement rendered by the California Supreme Court’s majority opinion with respect to that state’s constitution. They validate Equality Maryland’s stance on the issue and consequently its strategy. Simply put, why should we settle for something less and not strive for full equality? Why should we forever be relegated to second-class status?

There is no question marriage equality in Maryland will take years—certainly beyond the 2010 election. We do not have a judicial remedy at this point. The timing of the lawsuit reaching the Court of Appeals was sickeningly unfortunate in that it occurred just prior to two conservative justices’ retirement. Accordingly, our efforts must be trained on the legislature and at the same time, we must aggressively educate the voters on the issue to win their support.

And we need more of the lgbt community to participate, especially young people. Even those who do not view marriage as a realistic or even desirable goal in their lives now may want to have that option available down the road when their own circumstances change.

This is not a battle that should be undertaken by a single organization, however strong it may be. The fight must be joined by the entire LGBT community to contribute its voices, resources and talents to the education component of the overall strategy.

While Equality Maryland presses our case to lawmakers and voters, it needs to be bolstered by individuals lobbying their own district legislators. The combined efforts will be effective. Grass roots organizations in local districts would provide a boon. Equality Maryland is extremely willing to lend a hand in such initiatives.

This process is slow, methodical, but it should be unwavering. The Supreme Court of the largest state in the nation saw the fairness in full marriage equality under the law. We should fully acknowledge that not only the Court’s majority was correct, but so is Equality Maryland.

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