Saturday, January 21, 2006
Judge M. Brooke Murdock of the Baltimore Circuit Court in Maryland struck down a 1973 law banning same-sex marriage yesterday, ruling the measure violated a state constitutional amendment prohibiting sex discrimination.
The decision will not allow gay couples to be immediately eligible for marriage licenses because Murdock stayed the order pending an appeal. The state’s attorney general’s office filed the appeal right after the ruling was made.
“Although tradition and societal values are important, they cannot be given so much weight that they alone will justify a discriminatory statutory classification,” the judge stated in the ruling. “When tradition is the guise under which prejudice or animosity hides, it is not a legitimate state interest.”
In making the decision, Judge Murdock wrote, “the court is not unaware of the dramatic impact of its ruling.”
Ken Choe, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said “men and women were indeed treated differently under the law Judge Murdock struck down. A man can marry a woman, but a woman can’t marry a woman. Same-sex couples need the same protections for their families that opposite-sex couples do.”
The ACLU hailed the ruling, calling it “a historical step toward allowing same-sex couples to legally marry in Maryland.” She considered but dismissed all the state’s arguments for the restriction, noting “Prevention of same-sex marriage is not rationally related to the state’s interests in promoting stable families and protecting the best interests of children. … These arguments are illogical and inaccurate.”
Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. released a statement saying that that the state will “begin a vigorous appeals process. I firmly believe the institution of marriage is for one man and one woman only.”
Governor Ehrlich had sent to Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), a letter in response to the ruling advising him to appeal the decision and offered additional resources to support the appeal.
“We have noted an appeal and think it appropriate that the court stayed the operation of its order,” said Kevin J. Enright, a spokesman for Curran, in a statement. “We await having the decision of Maryland’s appellate courts.”
The Maryland House of Delegates scheduled hearings for January 31, 2006 on proposals dealing with same-sex marriages, including a proposed constitutional amendment.
John Lestitian, a plaintiff in the case, said Murdock’s decision was “a step in a very long process. As a 40-year-old man, I should be able to decide who my family is.”
“This is such an exciting moment,” said Lisa Polyak. Her partner of 24 years, Gita Deane, was a plaintiff in the case. “Our participation in this lawsuit has always been about family protections for our children. Tonight, we will rest a little easier knowing that those protections are within reach.”
The equal rights amendment in Maryland’s State Constitution was ratified by voters in 1972. The marriage law which defined marriage as only between one man and one woman was approved the following year.
The lawsuit leading to the decision started when nine gay and/or lesbian couples and one individual sued court clerks in five Maryland counties for denying marriage licenses to them, citing legal, financial, and emotional harm. In July of 2004, the ACLU filed the suit challenging the state ban on same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriages are only legal in the state of Massachusetts in the United States, with the states of Vermont and Connecticut recognizing other civil unions. Hawaii and New Jersey offer some legal protections to same-sex couples, while 13 states have appoved constitutional amendments rejecting recognition of same-sex marriage. Courts in California, New Jersey, New York and Washington State are facing cases on the issue.