Spurred by the passage of anti-gay-marriage ballot measures in 11 states, about 70 pastors gathered in Rosedale's Mount Pleasant Baptist Church yesterday pledging to renew efforts to keep same-sex marriage from becoming legal in Maryland.
Calling itself the largest interdenominational group of clergy assembled statewide to fight gay marriage, the group said it hopes to assemble 100,000 protesters for a march on the State House in Annapolis on Jan. 27.
The goal of the "Defend Maryland Marriage Rally" is to pressure legislators to strengthen laws against same-sex marriage, even though two such legislative bills were defeated by wide margins last session.
"We are in an all-out war. Annapolis needs to know we are serious. ... We're gonna do this for the glory of God," said the Rev. Clifford Johnson, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant, who drew a chorus of "amens!" from others in the Baltimore County church.
But those seeking to extend marriage rights to gays say that the pastors represent a small minority in a relatively tolerant and progressive state.
"Just because they want to get 100,000 people to Annapolis doesn't mean they are going to," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay-advocacy group. "When we filed a lawsuit, there wasn't even a blip on their radar screen."
In July, nine gay couples sued the state after court clerks in Baltimore City and several counties refused to issue marriage licenses to them. The lawsuit contends that Maryland's ban on gay marriages is unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Equality of Maryland collaborated on the lawsuit, and a hearing is scheduled in Baltimore Circuit Court on March 14. The group of ministers plans a march on March 10 to draw attention to the hearing.
Some proponents of gay marriage said yesterday they were unfazed by the possibility of large protests.
"I respect their right to disagree with us, and their right to exercise their political opinion," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU. "But I think Maryland is a very tolerant state, and I think Marylanders understand that denying their neighbors the ability to obtain the legal protections for their committed relationships is unfair."
Johnson and Bishop Bart Pierce, pastor of Rock City Church in Baltimore County, began reaching out to ministers this fall. About 100 clergy members came together from churches small and large, urban and suburban, representing black, white and Hispanic congregations.
Yesterday's meeting started with an hour-long film, Gay Rights, Special Rights, by the Traditional Values Coalition, a group that opposes gay marriage. The video depicts the 1993 gay-rights march on Washington and condemns its comparison to the 1963 civil rights march and the legendary speech made by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The video is also sprinkled with commentary by clergy and conservative lawmakers, including Sen. Trent Lott, who denounces the "homosexual agenda" as an "effort to promote a lifestyle to get special rights."
Afterward, Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican and the General Assembly's most outspoken critic of gay marriage, told the group that he is prepared for a fight over gay marriage in the legislature.
"I am appalled that the homosexual agenda is using civil rights as their platform," he said. "They are going to regret it just as they are going to regret bringing this battle to Maryland. ... They are going to be black and blue from this battle."
Last session, the General Assembly defeated two bills that would have shielded the state's legal definition of marriage from same-sex couples.
One would have reinforced a 1973 state law that defined marriage as between a man and woman and would have prevented the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from outside of Maryland. The other was a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Dwyer said he believes Election Day showed increasing support to ban gay marriage and that Maryland could be next.
"It confirms that my message sells," he said. "I was so excited that the people of America said that why they voted the way they did has everything to do with the moral values of this nation."
Yet others say that gay marriage is about rights, not morals, and that religious officials should stay out of the debate.
"I think it's really sad that churches would get together to do this. Especially that black churches, who have felt what oppression has been, would come together to oppress another group," said the Rev. Harris Thomas, pastor of Unity Fellowship Church in Baltimore. "People take the Bible and they teach it and preach it according to their own prejudices."