As a civil right activist, I have spent my life fighting to make ours a more just and fair society. That's why I urge the Maryland General Assembly to support marriage equality and pass the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. I firmly believe that this is a matter of civil rights, equal protection and equality. Civil rights are positive legal prerogatives — the right to equal treatment before the law. These are rights shared by everyone; there is no one in the United States who does not — or should not — share in enjoying these rights. Discrimination is wrong no matter who the victim is. We cannot move toward full human rights protection and opportunity without confronting — and ending — homophobia. For it is homophobia that is at the root of denying the freedom to marry to gays and lesbians. As my late neighbor and friend, Coretta Scott King, said in 1998:
"Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood."
And in 2000 she added:
"We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say 'common struggle' because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender or ethnic discrimination."
Three years ago we celebrated the 40th anniversary of a case aptly called Loving v. Virginia, which struck down anti-miscegenation laws and, many years later, allowed my wife, Pam, and me to marry in the state that declares "Virginia is for lovers." Then, as now, proponents of marriage-as-is invoked "God's plan." The trial judge who sentenced the Lovings said that when God created the races: "He placed them on separate continents. … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
God seems to have made room in his plan for interracial marriage. He will no doubt do the same for same-sex marriage.
Standing for the freedom to marry is about supporting all families, but I would be remiss without highlighting the impact that this inequality has on black same-sex couples, who statistically are already economically disadvantaged compared to their straight sisters and brothers. In comparison to black opposite-sex couples and white same-sex couples, black same-sex couples are more likely to parent children and earn a lower annual income. The lack of marriage rights negatively affects black same-sex couples because they are also more likely to work in the public sector, relying on health insurance that is often only afforded to married couples.
Furthermore, I firmly believe that marriage strengthens communities. Allowing more couples the opportunity to marry will strengthen the communities — and families — that most need it.
I served for 20 years in the Georgia State House and Senate; I recall difficult decisions my colleagues and I had to make, often torn between conscience and public opinion. I hope the General Assembly will stand for what's right and bring the freedom to marry to Maryland.
The writer is chairman emeritus of the NAACP National Board of Directors.