Maryland’s new laws address issues from gun violence to divorce

When the calendar turns over to a new month on Sunday, hundreds of new laws take effect in Maryland, from restrictions on carrying guns to changes to how married couples can get divorced. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting laws.

Gun control measures

Multiple laws go into effect that limit who can get concealed carry handgun permits, where the guns can be carried, and place stricter requirements on keeping guns away from young people.

The National Rifle Association and others have already lodged legal challenges to the new rules for concealed carry handgun permits, including a prohibition on carrying concealed handguns into schools, colleges, health facilities, government buildings, places that sell alcohol or cannabis, stadiums, museums, casinos and more. The law also prohibits most permit holders from carrying concealed handguns on private property unless they have permission to do so.

Lawmakers passed the restrictions, with the support of Gov. Wes Moore, in response to a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively struck down the state’s standard that a gun owner needs to prove a “good and substantial reason” to carry a concealed handgun. That change led to a flood of concealed carry permit applications.

Jaelynn’s Law prohibits gun owners from leaving weapons where a child younger than 18 can access them, a change from the prior law that set the age at 16. The law also increases penalties for violations of the law. It’s named for Jaelynn Willey, who was fatally wounded in a shooting at Great Mills High School in 2018.

Child Victims Act

After years of halting progress, survivors of child sexual abuse will now have a greatly expanded ability to file civil lawsuits against institutions that employed or enabled their abusers. Much of the focus has been on the Catholic Church, but other organizations that may face lawsuits include schools, camps and youth organizations.

The passage of the Child Victims Act this year represented the culmination of years of difficult work from lawmakers and advocates, though some have questioned whether the law will withstand potential legal challenges.

Law firms have been busy advertising to sign up clients wanting to sue under the act, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore has warned that it may consider filing bankruptcy under the financial pressure of expected lawsuits.

Elections improvements

A series of new laws seek to improve Maryland’s process for holding elections and counting ballots.

Elections officials will be allowed to start processing mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, so that results can be more quickly tabulated on Election Day. This change was sought after vote-by-mail and voting at ballot drop boxes increased significantly since the coronavirus pandemic.

Maryland was able to process ballots early in some counties in the 2022 election on an emergency basis, after prevailing in a court challenge brought by unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox.

Election judges will also make more money for the job, a measure aimed at improving recruitment and retention. The new minimum pay will be $250 per day of work during voting and $50 for training sessions.

Attorney General powers

The Office of the Attorney General will see several changes as a result of new laws.

Already responsible for investigating deaths and serious injuries that involve police officers, the attorney general will now have the ability to criminally prosecute police officers in those cases. The change was made after local state’s attorneys rarely filed charges.

The attorney general also will have the ability to enforce civil rights laws and will gain a new division focused on environmental crimes.

Expanded fentanyl testing

Hospitals will be required to test for the synthetic opioid fentanyl when toxicology screens are conducted on patients, the result of advocacy from friends and loved ones of Josh Siems, a Baltimore native who died from an overdose one year ago.

Siems’ loved ones were shocked to learn that the standard toxicology screen didn’t include fentanyl, a drug that’s increasingly causing harm to people, some who use it intentionally and others who take drugs that are laced with fentanyl.

Advocates hope the increased testing will give better information on the scope of the fentanyl problem and also serve to warn survivors of overdoses.

More defibrillators in public spaces

Some large restaurants and grocery stores will be required to have life-saving automated external defibrillators on hand. The requirement applies to restaurants that have more than $1 million in revenue or more than 100 seats, as well as grocery stores with income of $10 million or more.

The law is named for Joe Sheya, a Stevensville man who died of sudden cardiac arrest in 2014.

Expanded coverage for transgender Marylanders

The Trans Equity Health Act expands the types of gender-affirming care available to patients who use Medicaid insurance.

Some gender-affirming care already was covered by Medicaid, but dozens of procedures and surgeries were not. Though only a small number of Marylanders are expected to utilize the expanded options, the law’s passage represented a big victory for transgender Marylanders and advocates.

Commemorative days and symbols

Coming soon to official state calendars: Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27; Dashain Day on Oct. 5, recognizing a festival originating in Nepal that celebrates and symbolizes victory of good over evil; and 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion Day on March 9, honoring an all-Black, all-female Army unit that cleared a backlog of mail to troops in World War II.

Meanwhile, the list of state symbols will now include Maryland Rye as the official state spirit.

Modernizing language

The state’s Commission on LGBTQ Affairs will be renamed to the Commission on LGBTQIA+ affairs, in better recognition of the diversity of gender and sexuality in the state.

The new name encompasses “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, agender, or aromantic, and additional identities,” according to a nonpartisan analysis of the bill. The commission also will be expanded from 15 members to 21 members.

And references in state law to “inmates” will be changed to “incarcerated individuals.”

No more spousal defense to rape charges

Those accused of rape and sexual offenses previously had been able to avoid criminal charges in most cases if they were married to the victim. No longer.

A new law repeals what’s known as the “spousal defense” for rape and sexual assault charges.

Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, told fellow lawmakers earlier this year that the old law was “archaic.”

“It deprives married people of the right to say, ‘No,’” said Crutchfield, a Montgomery County Democrat. “Marriage should not deprive a human being of bodily autonomy.”

The bill was considered three prior times before it passed in 2023.

Changing divorce laws

Maryland’s divorce laws are seeing significant changes, with a more straightforward path for couples seeking a divorce.

Couples that wish to end their marriage will only be required to acknowledge that they’ve lived apart for six months, or at least lived separately in the same home without being intimate for six months.

Gone is a prior requirement for 12 months living apart or providing proof of adultery, desertion or other grievances between the spouses.

“Those require the employment of private detectives and very difficult testimony, very embarrassing testimony in court,” said Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican who sponsored the bill. “It’s been shown that it really destroys families, especially it destroys children.”

Also, as of Oct. 1, Maryland will no longer have a type of divorce known as “limited” divorce.

Rarely used and only applicable in certain situations, a limited divorce wouldn’t completely end the marriage, but did “grant the complaining party the right to live separate and apart from the other spouse,” according to a nonpartisan analysis. A limited divorce also could include conditions for custody, visitation, child support and use of a family home.