Environmentalist and philanthropist Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin has teamed up with state legislators, interfaith leaders and environmental advocates to spearhead an effort to change Maryland’s constitution. Through the Healthy Green Maryland Amendment, the advocates aim to add a Marylander’s right to a healthy and healthful environment to the state’s two-centuries-old Declaration of Rights.
“It might surprise people to know that under law, they do not have a protected right to a healthy environment,” Cardin said. “Clean water, clean air, healthy land, an ecosystem that can sustain itself, a stable climate — these are not rights that are enshrined in our laws.”
Among the 47 unalienable rights guaranteed in Maryland’s Declaration of Rights are religious freedom, freedom of speech, the right to petition and the right to not provide evidence against yourself in a criminal case. The passage of the Healthy Green Maryland Amendment — which requires an affirmative three-fifths majority vote from both the state Senate and House of Delegates — Cardin said, would provide a legal foundation for Marylanders to hold the state accountable “for its obligation as a trustee of the natural resources of the state to care for those natural resources.”
State constitutional amendments such as this have been impactful in other states. In 1971, Pennsylvanians approved a constitutional amendment that established their right to a healthy environment, and the responsibility of the state government to maintain those conditions. For more than 40 years, the amendment seemed mostly symbolic. But in a 2013 case in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the amendment rendered elements of a 2012 state hydraulic fracturing (fracking) bill unconstitutional. As recently as 2018, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the amendment has been invoked at public hearings by citizens residing in areas vulnerable to the environmental hazards caused by fracking.
Though fracking has been banned in Maryland since 2017, Cardin said the bill would also open the doors for green initiatives and energy alternatives. Cardin has faced some opposition by those who say the amendment would open the flood gates to litigation.
“This amendment is not ratcheting up the anxiety and the desire for lawsuits, that’s already there,” said Cardin. “What this will do is provide another legal tool to make sure that those appropriate lawsuits can be effective, where they should be effective, if there is a violation.”
Among Cardin’s supporters and partners for establishing the bill is Maryland Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit that promotes human health through environmental policies and practices. The group’s executive director, Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, believes that having in place language to hold Maryland accountable for environmental hazards puts the state in a better place to defend against the existential threats society faces today. She compared the fight for environmental rights to the ongoing fight for civil rights.
“Civil rights didn’t happen overnight. It happened little by little,” said Toles O’Laughlin. “Each state, each municipality, each community took steps and created enough of a groundswell for it to become something that we take to be true. We’re in the beginning of that conversation.”
The Healthy Green Maryland Amendment was first introduced without a House companion bill in 2018 by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), but never received a vote. As of publication time, the 2019 bill was not yet filed. According to Cardin, the language for a House bill to be sponsored by Del. Stephen Lafferty (D-District 42) was being finalized. A sponsor for a Senate companion bill is yet to be named.
Citing support from religious environmental groups such as Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and Interfaith Power & Light, Cardin called the bill part of the faith community’s mission.
“The Maryland community of faith has embraced this as a top priority,” said Cardin. “If the earth is God’s gift to us, and it is essential for our well-being, then it is essential for us to take care of the earth.”