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Holy War

Inside the Crusade to Kill Maryland’s New Marriage-Equality Law

Photo: Upper left: AP Photo/Chris Gardner, lower left: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, right: Jon Williams/City Paper Street Team, License: N/A

Upper left: AP Photo/Chris Gardner, lower left: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, right: Jon Williams/City Paper Street Team


Maryland holds a special place in the legal history of same-sex marriage in America. In 1973, Maryland lawmakers reacted to marriage attempts by same-sex couples by enacting the nation’s first state law defining marriage as occurring between one man and one woman—what has since been dubbed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which became federal law in 1996.

This year, nearly two generations later, Maryland reversed course and passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act (CMPA), legalizing same-sex marriages. While public polls show it is increasingly popular nationwide and in Maryland, same-sex marriage is anathema to many for whom the Bible, which frowns on homosexuality, is “The Word,” setting God’s laws for all people. And for them, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is the best hope for keeping the biblical basis for marriage on the law books in Maryland and wherever else it is threatened.

Since forming in 2007 to back California’s Proposition 8, the successful constitutional-amendment referendum to end same-sex marriages there, NOM has been the driving force to keep gays and lesbians from gaining or maintaining the legal right to marry in America. With the passage of the CMPA in Maryland, NOM’s well-honed organizational prowess has come to the state in the form of the Maryland Marriage Alliance (MMA), on whose three-member board sits NOM’s executive director, Brian S. Brown.

MMA and NOM donated more than four-fifths of the money raised to support the highly successful petition drive that landed the CMPA on the Nov. 6 ballot as Question 6, which will decide whether the law survives. And MMA is the main group—joined by one other, Jump the Broom for Marriages (JBM)—registered to raise and spend campaign funds to defeat Question 6. The first campaign-finance reports of the ballot battle are due in October, so who’s raising and spending how much, and where the money’s coming from, remains to be seen.

In each of the 32 times same-sex marriage questions were on state ballots around the country, they have failed, and those opposed are determined to make sure that happens again this year in Maryland, as well as in the other three states—Maine, Minnesota, and Washington—that have ballot questions on the issue on Nov. 6.

The question is: How far will NOM, MMA, and JBM go in their attempt to kill the new law, given that polling shows a majority of Marylanders support gay marriage and a dwindling number oppose it?

The answer may never be entirely clear, since NOM goes to great lengths in its attempts to protect how it raises and spends money from public scrutiny. But based on NOM’s past conduct, its time-tested partnerships with anti-gay-marriage leaders in Maryland, and JBM’s ties to a Maryland political mover-and-shaker with scandal in his past, expect anti-gay-marriage tactics to get ugly in Maryland.

The ugliness has already shown its face in the rhetoric of NOM-tied preachers in Maryland. Perhaps the boldest statements have come from Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, where MMA Executive Director Derek McCoy is associate pastor. Jackson has linked gay marriage with “a Satanic plot to destroy our seed.”

Among longtime opponents of gay marriage in Maryland, such as state Del. Donald Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel County)—who has introduced legislation each year for nearly a decade that would make DOMA an amendment to the Maryland Constitution—and Michael Peroutka of the Institute on the Constitution (IOTC), a longtime Dwyer supporter, the use of venom against gays and lesbians is particularly overt.

In a February column on the IOTC’s web site, the American View, Peroutka praises Dwyer “valiantly fighting the desperate efforts of the sodomite lobby in Annapolis to redefine the God-given and God-ordained institution of marriage.” He then goes on to thank Dwyer for the way he testified against the CMPA, since it helped Peroutka realize something “that had eluded me.” That something was this, as memorialized in Dwyer’s written testimony:

“The reason why it is so desperately important to homosexuals to redefine marriage has little to do with ‘fairness’ and much to do with gaining access to straight, normal, decent Maryland children. . . . You see, homosexuals can’t reproduce. So they must recruit. The best place to recruit is in schools where they can have unfettered access to children. . . . Stripped of all its phony ‘fairness’ language, what is being pushed is nothing short of government-authorized perversion of Maryland children. It’s a license for child abuse.”

In August, Bishop Jackson echoed this point at Glenn Beck’s Under God: Indivisible conference in Texas, saying, in connection with the gay marriage issue, that “folks who cannot reproduce want to recruit your kids.”

After the CMPA passed in Annapolis, Peroutka wrote a column entitled “Maryland Legislature Commits Suicide.” In it, he concluded that “no earthly government body can redefine marriage any more than it can redefine the law of gravity” and that “no matter how much ink gets spilled on paper in Annapolis, no change has occurred in either the laws of gravity or the definition of marriage. . . . Until this Governor is impeached and until this legislature is recalled and replaced with citizens who know the law and the limits of civil jurisdiction, there is no reason to consider this a valid legislature or this a legitimate governor. Other than fear, I can think of no reason to further obey their dictates.”

In this environment among opponents of gay marriage, it was hardly surprising when Dennis Leatherman, pastor of the Mountain Lake Independent Baptist Church in Oakland, Md., said of gays during a May sermon: “Kill them all. Right? I will be very honest with you. My flesh kind of likes that idea.” Then he backed off, noting that such a notion “violates Scripture. It is wrong.”

On the other side of the marriage-equality question, potent backing for Question 6 has been found among prominent African-American pastors who agree with the Maryland NAACP, as well as its branches in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, that marriage equality is a civil rights issue. Many of them gathered to speak in support of Question 6 at a Sept. 21 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The roster of African-American luminaries from churches across the country who came to the event included well-known names among the faithful, such as Dr. Otis Moss III, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; Dr. Amos C. Brown of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco; Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III, of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas; and Dr. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. Their arguments invoked the “equal protection under the law” clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the same clause that undergirded the legal arguments for civil rights causes that were so bitterly fought in U.S. history—and stressed the tradition of separation of church and state, pointing out that civil laws and religious tenets best not intermingle, including in questions of marriage.

All spoke passionately, with concise, tightly hewn moral and theological logic. The marquee name at the event was Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered a short homily, pointing out that he’s been for same-sex marriage since 2003. But perhaps the tightest, most moving statement came from someone who may not be a household name: Dr. Brad R. Braxton of the Open Church in Baltimore.

“My support of marriage equality is an endorsement of justice and love,” Braxton began. “Marriage can be a moral good,” he continued, and “denying access to the fullness of that moral good on the basis of sexual orientation is politically unjust and morally inappropriate.” After acknowledging the diversity of views on the issue and emphasizing that they “need to be discussed and debated in a respectful manner,” Braxton said, “my enthusiastic support of this legislation is rooted in a sense of political justice.” He invoked the past, saying that “as an African-American Christian pastor and theologian, I feel a moral obligation to advocate for marriage equality” because “in this country’s history, African-Americans were once denied the right to marry and form families. As a descendent of people who were denied these rights, why would I want to deny gay and lesbian people these rights?”

Finally, Braxton spoke of the power and goodness of love. “Marriage equality is a celebration of love,” he said, and “in light of the hatred and hostility in our world, we should celebrate and protect the political right of two consenting adults to unite in love to form a family. Surely, relationships rooted in love, irrespective of one’s sexual orientation, strengthen the body politic and enhance the common good. If we genuinely want liberty and justice for all, then it is crucial for voters in Maryland to vote ‘Yes’ on Question 6 on this year’s ballot. A ‘Yes’ vote affirms that the small word—‘all’—is really big enough to include everyone.”

Other than engaging in the battle of words that marks any policy debate, opponents of same-sex marriage also employ litigation, which NOM has undertaken readily in other states—and which MMA has already put to use in Maryland.

Though only five years old, NOM has sued five times in federal court: in California, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Florida. Each time, it sought to overturn aspects of the states’ election laws in order to avoid campaign-finance reporting requirements, and each time, it failed. On its legal team for each case was James Bopp, the attorney who started the successful Citizens United lawsuit that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to super PACs, which are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money in politics.

So far, NOM and MMA have not attempted to undermine Maryland’s campaign-finance laws in the courts. But in August, MMA filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, seeking to replace the ballot language of Question 6 and replace it with its own proposed language. In addition to MMA, the plaintiffs were its executive director and board member, Derek McCoy, and state Del. Emmett C. Burns (D-10th District), a Baltimore pastor. They withdrew their complaint in September, but what it says reveals much about how anti-Question 6 forces feel about the law they want overturned.

The approved ballot language for Question 6 reads:

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

Here is the language MMA proposed in its lawsuit:

Redefines marriage as between one man and one woman to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry; exposes clergy and certain non-profit charitable organizations which are not operated, supervised, or controlled by a religious organization to liability for refusing to perform same-sex marriage against their religious convictions; only provides limited exceptions to clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; provides no protection for religious or other non-profit organizations that receive State and/or Federal funding for its programs from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; provides for a criminal charge of misdemeanor and on conviction is subject to a fine of up to $500.00.

The differences between the two are stark. The approved language emphasizes that clergy and religious organizations are explicitly protected from liability should they choose not to marry gay and lesbian couples. But the proposed MMA language says that’s not so, claiming that the law “exposes” clergy and others who perform marriage ceremony to liability, including criminal prosecution.

The only provisions for criminal penalties in the CMPA, though, pertain to individuals who marry their relatives. There is nothing in the law suggesting clergy or others who conduct marriage ceremonies are liable for anything, criminally or otherwise. That hasn’t stopped MMA from suggesting otherwise by using rhetorical devices designed to shed doubt on anything Question 6 supporters say.

On Sept. 23, after MMA dropped its lawsuit over the Question 6 language, McCoy took the stage at Manna Bible Baptist Church in Baltimore to speak about the law and MMA’s drive to defeat it. In the speech, which was posted on YouTube, McCoy admitted that the new law won’t penalize pastors and churches that don’t perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

“What you’re going to hear is, ‘Well, that bill does not force pastors to marry anybody in their pulpits. It gives churches the free rein to do whatever they want to do. You don’t have to worry, this is only a civil marriage license.’ Most of the stuff you are going to hear on the other side, saying, ‘It’s not going to do this, and it’s not going to do this, this is civil marriage, and da-da-da,’” McCoy said, “I just want you to know, it’s just not true.”

Thus, when McCoy declared, “That is true, they will not come tomorrow and handcuff Pastor Gaines,” Manna’s leader, he had already gone to such great lengths to sow doubt about the other side’s veracity that his listeners may well believe that, in fact, something like that could happen if Question 6 passes. It’s a time-tested trick—when faced with opposing facts that are unassailable, undermine them with blanket assaults on the opponent’s honesty. When it works, believers take it as a matter of faith that the other side is simply wrong on every score.

City Paper attempted to reach McCoy for comment, but did not hear back from him by press time.

The anti-Question 6 forces in Maryland face formidable, well-heeled opponents. Four pro-Question 6 groups have formed: Freedom to Marry Maryland PAC, Human Rights Campaign National Marriage Fund, Marylanders for Marriage Equality, and Human Rights Campaign Maryland Families PAC. Their efforts are supported by Maryland’s NAACP, many prominent religious leaders of a variety of faiths, unions, and a healthy cross-section of the state’s political establishment, led by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. They also, in spirit at least, have the backing of President Barack Obama, who in May cited his Christian faith in announcing his support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry.

Even before Obama’s announcement, national public-opinion polling had been trending in favor of same-sex marriage, with majorities first appearing in 2010. Analysis of the results indicates that older, more religious, less educated residents of the South and Midwest are more likely to be opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage, while younger, less religious, more educated residents of the Northeast and West are more likely to be supportive. Also, support is more prevalent among women than men.

Obama’s opinion on the matter had dramatic consequences among Marylanders. In January, Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found that 49 percent of Marylanders supported legalizing same-sex marriages, while 47 percent opposed it, with a much larger margin among African-Americans, with 33 percent in favor and 60 percent opposed. In September, Gonzales found 51 percent would vote in favor of Question 6 and 43 percent would vote against, with 44 percent of African-Americans in favor and 52 percent opposed.

“Although a majority of black voters say they’ll vote against Question 6,” Gonzales’ poll summary states, “support is up from our January survey when only 33% favored same-sex marriage, suggesting public pronouncements in the interim from the President and others have had an ameliorative impact for proponents.”

In May, two weeks after Obama’s announcement, Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm, found even greater support. Fifty-seven percent said they would vote for Question 6, including 55 percent of African-Americans. As for intensity, 46 percent said they would vote yes on the ballot question and feel strongly about it, compared to 36 percent who said they would vote no and feel strongly about it.

“Maryland voters were already prepared to support marriage equality at the polls this fall even before President Obama’s announcement,” the firm’s summary states. “But now it appears the passage will come by a much stronger margin.”

McCoy, though, dismisses the polling. “Every poll is nothing but propaganda,” he said in May while announcing MMA’s successful petition drive. More dispassionate observers also doubt how well the results gauge how people will actually vote on Election Day. Richard Vatz, a Towson University communications professor, wrote in a letter to The Baltimore Sun in August that “five of the eight public polls conducted in the two months before California voters decided on Proposition 8” in 2008 “suggested that the measure would be defeated, perhaps by a wide margin. Instead, voters outlawed gay marriage, 53-47.” And in Maine in 2009, he continues, “most polls showed that voters favored same-sex marriage, in one case by double digits. But it was defeated, also 53-47.”

Vatz ventured to pose a reason why polling on same-sex marriage has so widely diverged from the results on Election Day: “Gay marriage is an issue in which polls don’t necessarily reflect what voters will actually do at the ballot because it is increasingly politically incorrect to oppose such nuptials.”

The national zeitgeist on same-sex marriage has indeed seemed to be shifting in its favor, which may make those who harbor doubts about opening up marriage to gays and lesbians keep their true feelings to themselves, so as not to seem politically incorrect, as Vatz suggests. Celebrity support has been growing, most recently evidenced by a New York fundraiser to help pass Maryland’s Question 6, hosted by O’Malley and attended by Hollywood stars like Susan Sarandon and John Waters, and political leaders across the partisan divide.

The cost of political incorrectness on marriage equality was made abundantly clear in the case of Emmett Burns, the Maryland state delegate who joined MMA’s lawsuit over the Question 6 ballot language. Shortly after Burns sent a letter in late August to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, writing, “I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically, as a Raven [sic] football player,” he quickly backed off amid overwhelming negative public reaction—and may have unwittingly helped the supporters’ cause.

The star-studded appeal of the same-sex marriage cause doesn’t stymie the zealous drive of its opponents in Maryland, though. Other than NOM, the MMA is supported by the Maryland Family Alliance, a nonprofit chaired by McCoy, and the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC), which does public-policy advocacy on behalf of the Catholic Church. MCC spokeswoman Kathy Dempsey told The Sun recently that “our campaign is not about raising millions and millions from Hollywood and Madison Avenue,” an apparent dig at the fundraising strategy of Question 6 supporters.

While the opponents may not get fat checks from national celebrities, they do have prodigious resources. NOM’s involvement brings not only money but strategy—including, as revealed earlier this year, attempts to divide the African-American and gay-and-lesbian communities. The idea, according to a NOM memo that turned up as part of one of its federal lawsuits to evade campaign-finance disclosures, is to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize, and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”

NOM’s strategy has been put in play in Maryland. McCoy has been “equipped” by NOM with direct employment as executive director of MMA—a salary he apparently needs, given the $32,586 federal tax lien filed against him by the IRS in 2011 in Prince George’s County Circuit Court. Jackson, too, has financial reasons to be “energized” about NOM’s agenda. NOM gave $20,000 to Jackson’s High Impact Leadership Coalition, which, along with NOM, bankrolled Jackson’s Stand4MarriageDC, which unsuccessfully sought to put Washington, D.C.’s law legalizing same-sex marriage up for referendum. (Stand4Marriage’s other donor, with a token amount, was Chuck Donovan of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed an anti-gay hate group.)

Evidence abounds of a media campaign objecting to the idea of same-sex marriage as a civil right, the second part of NOM’s three-part wedge strategy, as McCoy, Jackson, Burns, and many other African-American pastors have regularly turned to this theme in their public speaking.

As for the third element of NOM’s strategy, McCoy claimed at his speech at Manna Bible Baptist Church that “I’ve been told that I’m a racist, a bigot, a hater—and I said, ‘Wow, I never knew in my life that I’d be called those things.’” He did not, however, say who the name-callers were or where and when they made such statements.

Whether Jump the Broom for Marriages is also part of NOM’s Maryland operations remains to be seen: October’s campaign-finance reports should clarify whether NOM’s supporting the effort. JBM’s approach, though, will likely reflect the hardball political tactics of longtime Maryland political operative Julius Henson, who—after his May election-law conviction over the 2010 robo-calls scandal involving former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich’s gubernatorial campaign—told the Maryland Gazette he’d be helping JBM. The group’s signs bear the telltale purple-and-yellow color scheme of many of Henson’s campaigns in the past, and its leadership includes many former Henson clients, including Lisa Joi Stancil, a former Baltimore City State’s Attorney candidate, and Deborah Claridy, who ran for Baltimore City sheriff in 2010.

Despite the positive polling, political clout, and celebrity backing Question 6 supporters are getting, NOM and MMA will continue to mount a memorable, combative campaign. Their motivation, after all, comes from above—as McCoy pointed out at his Manna speech.

“When we are in the Kingdom,” McCoy said, whipping himself and his audience into a fury, “we are supposed to be the third team on the field. We have a different rule book. This rule book is the Word of God,” so “our obligation is to be . . . the team that says no, we play by a different set of rules.” Just like “the prophets [who] spoke to the kings” in the Bible “about what God said, and what was good and what was bad, and what was right and what was wrong,” McCoy exhorted Manna’s congregation to “believe we have a voice of authority, and we can declare and decree.” Referring obliquely to Question 6 supporters, he said, “I get what they’re saying over here, but God says it differently,” adding, “we cannot let this go down on our watch.”

If Question 6 fails, McCoy will have reason to believe his words were prophetic.

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