Last edited: January 02, 2005

Ruling on Gays Stirs Up Emotions

Many in the region praise court’s sweeping decision as clergymen denounce it; Prompts hope for more change

Baltimore Sun, June 28, 2003
501 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21278
Fax: 410-332-6977

By Scott Calvert, Sun Staff

Baltimore gay rights activist Jon A. Kaplan thinks it may be the start of big things for Maryland’s gay and lesbian population. Carroll County pastor Bill Thomas, meanwhile, speaks darkly of cultural “decline” and “devastation.”

The Supreme Court’s sweeping decision this week overturning a Texas sodomy law has stirred considerable emotion locally.

Gay rights advocates hope that, like early civil rights cases in the 1950s, Wednesday’s 6-3 ruling will spur future victories for gays and lesbians here and across the country. But opponents decry what they see as a further erosion of traditional values.

“We want equality. We want gay marriage. We want domestic partnership benefits,” an upbeat Kaplan, executive director of the Maryland group Free State Justice, said yesterday at his West Chase Street office.

Thomas, minister at New Life Foursquare Gospel Church in Westminster for more than a decade, painted a far different picture.

“For me, history shows—and the Bible pretty much teaches—when a country openly walks away from God’s design for marriage and family, usually that culture suffers decline and sometimes devastation,” he said, “such as what we’ve seen with the Roman Empire or Greek Empire.”

According to one constitutional expert, the decision may be far narrower than either side has concluded. “I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk to assume the Supreme Court is now going to uphold gay marriage or gay adoption,” said Stephen Wermiel, associate professor at American University Law School in Washington.

Wermiel said the ruling, while significant, was narrowly written to give gay men and lesbians the right to private, consensual sex. “That doesn’t get me to a constitutional right to get married,” he said.

Today in Maryland, gays and lesbians can adopt but not marry, and a brief statement issued yesterday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s office gave no sign the governor plans to change that. “The Ehrlich-Steele administration respects the authority of the Supreme Court and its decision in this matter,” said spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.

Maryland has a law banning discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Baltimore law goes further, specifically outlawing bias based on “gender identity or expression”—a step meant to protect transsexual and transgendered people who say they are denied jobs and housing.

Maryland also has a sodomy law still on its books, according to the Department of Legislative Services. But a consent decree signed by the state attorney general’s office in January 1999 effectively shelved that statute, said Lawrence Jacobs, a Free State Justice lawyer who challenged the law.

Four states, including Texas, had laws banning sodomy solely among same-sex partners; nine other states banned the practice by anyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

On Tuesday, the Maryland Board of Education voted explicitly to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment in the state’s public schools.

“It’s been an incredible week for us,” said Kaplan, whose group pushes civil rights for the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population.

Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling has been the talk of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon district, home to a large segment of the city’s gay and lesbian population.

“For Baltimore, there’s been a lot of buzz,” said Michael Lemmon, working the counter yesterday at Lambda Rising bookstore on West Chase Street. “Everybody is really happy about it. It’s a landmark decision. And not just for gay people—it’s a basic civil right.”

“It’s about time,” said Roger Dimick, general manager of the Hippo dance club on West Eager Street, as he readied for another night of business.

“It’s what gay people have been saying forever. What happens in our bedrooms is our business, same as what happens in straight people’s bedrooms.”

While he agrees that gay rights need to be strengthened, Dimick, for one, does not advocate same-sex marriage. “Our courts are full enough with straight people who can’t stay married,” he said. “If gay people could marry ... they’ll be fighting over the poodle and track lighting.”

Around the Baltimore region yesterday, supporters of gay rights cheered the ruling. Marge Appel of Forest Hill, vice president of the Harford County Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, called it “wonderful.”

“I think it’s necessary. ... I don’t believe that the acts two gays or two lesbians do is sodomy. They do it out of love, just like we do.” Appel, whose daughter is a lesbian, added, “The respect and love she and her partner have for each other is heartwarming.”

When Colette Roberts, chairwoman of the Howard County PFLAG chapter, heard the Supreme Court decision on the radio, she went straight to her computer to find more information on the Internet.

“I wanted to know who voted and how,” said the Columbia resident. “It’s just such an incredible landmark decision.”

Roberts, whose 41-year-old daughter is a lesbian, predicted that the ruling would ease inhibitions of gay people in Maryland, especially those who often travel across state lines.

“I know people who jokingly say, ‘I’m afraid to have a rainbow on my car,’” she said because they commute to Virginia, which banned homosexual and heterosexual sodomy. “Now I think people can be proud about who they are.”

Several Christian congregations in Howard County welcome people of all backgrounds and sexual orientations, said the Rev. Beth O’Malley, pastor of Columbia United Christian Church in Columbia. The Supreme Court ruling, she said, “pushes with the force of law the sense that, at a basic level, we all have a right to be safe.”

But more conservative religious figures denounced the decision.

“It’s bad policy, it’s pushing further the gay and lesbian agenda,” said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who is also pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church in Woodlawn. “It opens the door for same-sex marriage, goes against the laws of nature. Men were not meant to be in love, in a romantic way, with men.”

The Rev. Steven Hooker, pastor of New Beginnings Church of God in Bel Air, said the ruling underscores a perennial struggle between moral and humanistic concerns in America, but “we know the Bible completely condemns sodomy.”

Hooker added that sexual acts should promote creation of life, and that homosexuality represents the “imbalance of man’s lust.” He said the ruling and changing culture surrounding gay and lesbian issues are matters with which the faith community struggles.

“It comes down to choosing our lust, or actually choosing the right way, which is God’s moral law.”

In Carroll County, a Republican stronghold that one clergyman called a “Bible Belt-type county,” the court’s decision prompted disappointment.

“Just because something is legal doesn’t make it moral or true. Law doesn’t change people’s hearts,” said Thomas, the pastor at New Life Foursquare Gospel Church.

Reconciling this belief with the concept of compassionate Christianity is not easy, he conceded.

“It’s a tough one. I know we at our church really work hard to minister to all people regardless of sexual preference, but at the same time understanding there are consequences to what I would call cultural sins.”

Sun staff writers Alyson Klein, Lane Harvey Brown, Athima Chansanchai, Ryan Davis and Liz Kay contributed to this article.

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