Shore Lawmakers Weigh In On Social Issues

BERLIN – While the economy and budget issues have dominated the early part of the 2011 General Assembly session, several weighty social issues will soon likely come to bear including a potential resumption of the death penalty and an anticipated debate on same-sex marriages in Maryland.

Gov. Martin O’Malley last Friday introduced his proposed 2012 budget and much of the debate in the early phases of the General Assembly has focused on fiscal issues, but there are a handful of important societal and moral issues state lawmakers will have to consider in the coming weeks.

For example, bills, which, if approved, would redefine marriage in Maryland to include same-sex partners, were introduced in the Senate and the House last week, touching off what will likely be a lively debate on the issue.

The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act was filed in both the House and Senate last week. The House bill has 17 sponsors, while the Senate bill as 18 sponsors. Essentially, the bills would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland, adding it to the list of five other states and the District of Columbia where it has already been approved.

The bill’s language would change the definition from “only a marriage between a man and a woman” is valid in Maryland to “two individuals.” It’s an issue that has been debated in the past, but there appears to be growing momentum this time around with dozens of state lawmakers signed up as sponsors on the two bills. O’Malley has said he would endorse the change under some circumstances and it appears the state’s electorate could be getting on board.

Local legislatures certainly have their own opinions on the issue, but most appear to be drawing from traditional Eastern Shore conservative values heading into the debate.

“It’s going to get its share of debate and I go into any of these issues with an open mind, but that is going to be a tough one,” said Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) this week. “We need to talk more about this issue and I want to hear that discussion.”

Mathias said he supports the state’s current civil union laws regarding same-sex couples, but withheld judgment on passing same-sex marriage laws.

“We have a provision for civil unions in Maryland and I think that’s appropriate in today’s world, but marriage is a sacrament and has strong religious overtones,” he said. “We’re going to take a look at it, but I’m coming at it from a very conservative posture. We live in a very conservative place and I represent a very conservative district.”

Meanwhile, Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) agreed he would likely follow his traditional values, but also promised to keep an open mind on the issue.

“I’m sure there will be plenty of lively discussion on it,” he said. “My first reaction is, the folks in our district are very interested in family values and I think that’s something we need to maintain.”

McDermott said much of the support for same-sex marriage is likely coming from the western shore and wasn’t certain if the residents of his district were in favor of the measure.

“On the shore, I think it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “We’re generally a very traditional group of people and that gets a little complicated when you get outside of that box. It seems like every time we stray from those traditional values, we start breaking down the family.”

McDermott said he was concerned somewhat with the timing of the issue.

“I’m a little troubled it is coming up at this time when we have so many other issues facing us. I realize this is important to a lot of people, but I’m not sure this is the time or the place for this debate.”

Another weighty social issue on the horizon in the current Assembly session is a potential repeal of the death penalty in Maryland and local lawmakers were equally candid on the issue. Capital punishment was halted in Maryland in 2006 until new procedures were put in place. Currently, there are five inmates on death row in Maryland.

O’Malley remains staunchly opposed to the death penalty, while Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller is urging a resumption of capital punishment in the state. It remains to be seen who emerges from that battle of political heavyweights.

“I certainly can’t support any repeal of the death penalty in Maryland and I remain a solid advocate for it,” said Mathias. “I am a proponent of the death penalty. I’m all for upholding innocent until proven guilty, but there are enough safeguards in place and a strong enough appeals process in place to help ensure the innocent aren’t wrongly put to death.”

McDermott, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, will likely be on the front row of the debate.

“That’s another one of those weighty issues that will come through the Judiciary Committee,” he said. “I know we’re going to have a hearing on it at some point. The Senate president is really pushing it. It’s suspended until a plan is in place to ensure the wrongly accused aren’t put to death.”

McDermott, a career law enforcement official, said there are clear benefits to capital punishment.

“Some say it is not a deterrent, but I do know one thing,” he said. “That guy you put to death is not going to ever do it again.”