Same-sex marriage debated in Columbia

Legislature, courts to address issue soon


The Bible came out, the rainbow pin went on, rhetorical swords were sharpened, and mutual respect was declared.

Despite the passionate presentations, few of the approximately 160 attendees seemed swayed at this week's debate in Columbia about same-sex marriage. But participants agreed that such public discussions are critical with the definition of marriage in Maryland at stake.

The state legislature is likely to return to the issue of gay rights when it reconvenes, and the Baltimore Circuit Court is due to issue a decision soon in a closely watched case that will determine whether a 1972 state law prohibiting gay men and lesbians from marrying violates the state constitution.

"The courts will rule, but for real change to come, we have to change the minds and hearts of people where they live, in their homes, jobs and in their personal relationships," said Anthony McCarthy, a gay activist, minister and radio talk show host who argued in favor of same-sex marriage at the debate.

He tried his best to do that Tuesday, when he and Dan McCarthy, a member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays whose son is gay, opened the debate organized by PFLAG.

Dan McCarthy spoke about the changing nature of marriage laws and traditions. He argued that children of gays and lesbians deserve equal protections and that no religion should establish its position as the state's position. The opposition is guided only by "prejudice and fear of change," he said.

"In Scandinavia and Massachusetts," where same-sex marriage is legal, he said, "the sky has not fallen."

Tres Kerns, founder of the conservative organizations vote and Take Back Maryland, responded with a slew of statistics about HIV and AIDS in the gay population. Homosexuality, his argument went, "is just not healthy."

Grady Tallington Jr., the field director for and his ally in the debate, picked up on that theme. "Man is not created for such relationships," he said. "God neither approves of nor likes relationships that degrade the body."

And so it went. From the God Anthony McCarthy described, who loves and accepts people of all sexual orientations, to Tallington's God who is "repaying us for unrighteous acts." From Dan McCarthy's pleas to talk about civil, not religious marriage, to Kerns' contention that our unalienable rights "come from the Creator."

The audience, largely made up of supporters of same-sex marriage, clapped and hooted and - despite admonitions about outbursts - occasionally snickered or shouted, "Answer the question." Audience members also jotted down on index cards questions to which the panelists responded after a break:

Can someone in a same-sex marriage still go to heaven?

What would you do if one of your children told you he was gay?

Why should the civil rights of everyone be governed by only Christian beliefs?

Don't the statistics about the gay community and AIDS/HIV support gay marriage as a way to encourage monogamy?

If marriage is the nucleus of society, how can we change it without severe fallout?

The debate at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, moderated by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, left the crowd buzzing.

Crystal Ogar, a 16-year-old from Ellicott City, said she was angered and offended by some of the comments the opponents of gay marriage made.

"God loves us just the way we are, and we are who he wants us to be," she said. "Who are they to tell us who we should be, what we should do with ourselves and what is right?"

Barbara Stiegler, 65, an opponent of same-sex marriage from Woodstock, was equally adamant.

"We can talk about AIDS, we can talk about love, but that's not the issue," she said. "We can't sanction same-sex marriage because that's against what the creator God intended."

Kathy McGuire of Baltimore, who is raising two children with her same-sex partner, attended the debate because "you kind of want to hear the opponents. How compelling are their arguments?"

As she left, she said, "If he's the leader of the anti-gay marriage movement and that's all he has, then I feel pretty good about coming tonight and about my own family's welfare."

Speaking before a largely unsympathetic audience wasn't easy, Kerns said as audience members drifted out to their cars just before 10 p.m., adding, "We look at this as an opportunity to share what we believe."

Some people who approached him after the debate accused him of being hateful, but he denies that.

"Why would I be here," he told them, "if I didn't like you?"

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