As the Maryland Senate debated whether to approve same-sex marriage last week, one senator was at the center of the discussion, fielding numerous questions about the bill’s exemptions for religious organizations and the legal implications of proposed amendments.
One amendment designed to expand religious protections could open the door to other forms of discrimination, he argued. Another would have no practical effect on the law and was therefore unnecessary, he said.
“My law students would probably tell you that it was poetic justice,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who served as the bill’s floor leader. “That’s what I do or a living.”
Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C., is usually the one asking tough legal questions, but his responses, many of which he had little time to prepare because he hadn’t seen the amendments in advance, drew praise from his colleagues in the legislature.
“Sen. Raskin is holding a legal clinic over in the Senate,” tweeted Del. Keiffer Mitchell (D-Dist. 44) of Baltimore during the debate.
The next day, Raskin introduced a group of law students from American in the Senate, prompting Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, who voted against the bill, to note that “[Raskin] displayed his abilities on the floor of the Senate yesterday and made us all very proud.”
A native of the District of Columbia and a graduate of Harvard Law School, Raskin, 49, has lived in Takoma Park since 1989. He and his wife, Sarah, have three children.
Raskin, who has supported same-sex marriage in the Senate since he was first elected in 2006, said he’s been passionate about equal rights under the law for his whole life and that his career as a law professor prepared him for the debate.
“People are free to place a religious text at the center of their lives, but we have to put a constitutional text at the center of our government,” Raskin said. “For me, that is a sacred principle.”
Last year was the first year same-sex marriage legislation made it to the Senate floor, and Raskin was chosen as floor leader by Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 19) of Bethesda, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, to which the bill was assigned.
Raskin’s years of advocacy on the issue and command of the arguments made him the ideal choice, Frosh said.
“He’s respected by people on both sides of the aisle in the Senate, so I think his advocacy carried a great deal of weight,” Frosh said.
Last year, Raskin was also facing a daunting personal challenge during the debate: He was undergoing treatment for colon cancer.
Raskin credits his work in the Senate with helping him endure the discomfort of chemotherapy.
“If I weren’t working, I would have been profoundly depressed, I’m sure,” said Raskin, adding that he now has a clean bill of health. “It was very significant for me to be able to go through this again without having chemotherapy hanging over me.”
Last year, the bill passed the Senate 25-21, but died in the House. This year’s measure included additional language exempting religious organizations from having to provide services to same-sex couples and had the sponsorship of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). It passed the Senate, 25-22, and the House, 72-67.
Sultan Shakir, campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, said Raskin’s knowledge of the law was instrumental in the bill’s passage.
“Raskin has been a strong champion of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples throughout the entire campaign, whether that be by working with allies to develop strategy to secure the votes for passage in the legislature or by speaking passionately and eloquently on the Senate floor,” Shakir said in an email.
Opponents of the bill, including Del. Neil Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, who is helping organize a petition drive, have pledged to put the measure before voters in November.
Raskin is optimistic about the new law’s chance of surviving referendum. The final version of the legislation reconciled the fundamental value of equal rights under law with the fundamental value of religious pluralism and toleration, he said.
“There comes a point in any struggle for equal rights where you can’t turn the clock back, and I think we’re getting there on the rights of our gay and lesbian constituents,” Raskin said. “The days of marriage discrimination are numbered.”
Raskin recalled stepping outside of the Senate chamber after this year’s vote, where he saw hundreds of people cheering and celebrating.
“I realized we struck a blow not just for equality and freedom, but for family,” Raskin said.
Staff Writer Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.