Defeat of same-sex marriage bill, passage of tuition bill for immigrants among Annapolis highlights

The Catholic Standard

The Maryland General Assembly's 2011 session wrapped up on April 11 with several victories for the Catholic Church, including the defeat of same-sex marriage legislation and the passage of an in-state tuition bill for immigrants.

"[This session] was a lesson for everybody that we can't always expect politics as usual in Annapolis," said Mary Ellen Russell, the Maryland Catholic Conference's executive director. "Something different happened this year on the marriage legislation."

The MCC had its hands full for much of the session lobbying on behalf on the Catholic Church in Maryland against a bill that would redefined marriage as between any two individuals and not just one man and one woman.

"I think it was a very grueling year for everybody including the new legislators given the intensity of the marriage debate," Russell said.

After being passed by the State Senate, the same-sex marriage bill was sent back to committee on March 11 before it could be voted on in the House of Delegates, a result that "surprised everyone," according to Russell.

She attributed the bill's failure this session to the efforts of legislators, "in particular a number of new legislators who stood their ground and insisted they were going to vote their conscience," and "the work that our pastors and the leaders of many other faiths devoted to ensuring that the voices of constituents of Maryland were heard."

The bill is likely to be brought back next year, and Russell said the MCC will remain organized and focused on keeping people aware of the issue during the interim.

Also passing the legislator this year was the Maryland DREAM Act, which the Maryland Catholic Conference's associate director of social concerns Louis Brown described as a monumental civil rights bill that will "have an immediate impact of extending equal education opportunity for numerous Maryland high school students."

The bill would allow undocumented students to attend Maryland colleges at in-state rates if they spend three years in Maryland high schools, earn an associate's degree or 60 credits at state community colleges, and their family pays taxes.

"You now meet kids that will be able to go to college and that's a beautiful thing," Brown said.

While legislation that would have provided stricter oversight of Maryland abortion clinics failed to pass this year, Russell said, "I think it really succeeded for the first time ever in bringing serious scrutiny to the permissiveness of Maryland's abortion laws and resulted in a promise from the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to promulgate some kind of regulation."

The Maryland Catholic Conference plans to give input as the department drafts new regulations by this July. A life issues bill that succeeded this session will establish a grant program for hospitals that want to create umbilical cord blood transplant centers.

Falling by the wayside in the intense same-sex marriage debate was legislation that would have abolished the death penalty in Maryland. However Russell said, "We have every hope that the repeal of the death penalty will be one of the most prominent issues next year."

For the fifth year, the Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers (BOAST) in Maryland tax credit bill failed to pass out of the House Ways and Means Committee. BOAST would directly benefit families trying to send their children to Catholic schools, by giving a 75 percent state income tax credit to businesses which donate to a designated school's scholarship funding. It would also provide grants for further teacher training and enrichment programs for both public and private schools.

However $4.4 million in funding for nonreligious textbooks for private schools was renewed in the 2012 Maryland state budget at the same level as in 2011.

Another issue supported by the Maryland Catholic Conference that passed the state legislature was the Job Applicant Fairness Act, which would limit the ability of employers to use credit checks as a condition of employment. The MCC's Brown said this will help stop the perpetual unemployment cycle for people whose credit scores have gone down due to losing jobs in today's tough economic times and then who can't get jobs due to their low scores.

While the HOME Act, which prevented housing discrimination based on people's source of income, narrowly missed passing out of the House Environmental Matters Committee, Russell said that the committee chairs and many legislators have committed to working on the bill again next year.

The Maryland General Assembly faced a large deficit going into the 2011 legislative session, and many poverty-related bills were facing cuts. Brown said that while some mental health programs were cut by more than the MCC would have liked, "generally the legislature did a decent job of protecting the Maryland state social safety net."