After drawing national attention for his attempt to muzzle a football player who supported gay rights, a Maryland delegate walked back his position Sunday and said Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo should be allowed to speak out in favor of same-sex marriage.
"Upon reflection, he has his First Amendment rights," Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said in a telephone interview. "And I have my First Amendment rights. … Each of us has the right to speak our opinions. The football player and I have a right to speak our minds."
Burns, who is also the pastor and founder of the Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, has been under fire for a letter he wrote last month urging Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to "take the necessary action" and order Ayanbadejo to "cease and desist" his advocacy of gay rights.
Ayanbadejo said that the delegate's revised sentiment is "a little too late from a damage control perspective" but hopes that Burns will "open his heart" on the issue.
The 36-year-old football player traces his support for the issue to his upbringing — he spent his mid-teen years living with his family, who are straight, in an LGBT dorm at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Ayanbadejo's step-father was the dorm's headmaster.
Ayanbadejo penned a column in The Huffington Post explaining his support, taped a web-only video for the Maryland same-sex marriage campaign and — most recently — offered a pair of tickets to Monday's season-opening game against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium as a fundraising incentive.
TV host Ellen DeGeneres, political analyst Keith Olbermann and fellow NFL player Chris Kluwe were among the stars and media personalities who rushed to Ayanbadejo's defense in the past few days, while no major groups added their voice to Burns' cause. The Ravens ownership also publicly supported their player.
Though the Burns letter came from an opponent of same-sex marriage, the overwhelmingly negative reaction to it and the even the timing seem to have handed supporters a win. Ayanbadejo said he has a stack of invitations to speak to the national press this week — including an offer from DeGeneres to fly to California for a live appearance on her show.
Maryland will be one of four states to vote on same-sex marriage in November. The issue has never been upheld by referendum, though advocates point to positive poll numbers and high-profile endorsements as evidence momentum is on their side.
Campaigns on both sides of the marriage debate have stayed silent on the Burns vs. Ayanbadejo flap. It started Aug. 29, when Burns sent a letter to Bisciotti saying he found it "inconceivable" that Ayanbadejo "would publicly endorse same-sex marriage.
"Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other," Burns wrote.
"Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement."
Ayanbadejo rejected the remarks and said he plans to continue supporting the same-sex marriage campaign — saying that he's offered Gov. Martin O'Malley any fundraising help he needs for the issue.
A longtime supporter of gay rights, he said the attitude on the topic has shifted significantly within the NFL. His advocacy used to lead to "snickers in the locker room" and a jokes that he is gay (he is not).
Not anymore. He said at least 10 teammates have offered support in recent days. The switch in attitude, he said, "has happened faster than I ever thought it would happen."
By far the most passionate public response to Burns' letter came from Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings' punter: Kluwe has vocally supported same-sex marriage in Minnesota, where it is also on the ballot this year, and unleashed an obscenity-laced rant against Burns so scathing that it prompted a fresh round of news stories, including an appearance on MSNBC.
"How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life?" Kluwe wrote an open letter published on the sports blog Deadspin. "They won't come into your house and steal your children.
"They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population — rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children.
"You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails."
DeGeneres lauded both football players with a tweet: "I'm amazed and moved by your words. You're two of the most courageous people I know."
Burns initially defended his letter, saying Friday that a "public person representing a public team," should avoid commenting on social issues.
On Sunday, he declined to comment about what prompted him to write it, or what had changed his mind. He said repeatedly that he remains a Ravens fan.
Burns did not mention the controversy from the pulpit during the first portion of an afternoon service (a reporter from The Baltimore Sun was asked to leave halfway through).
However, guest preacher Carl L. Washington Sr. of St. Timothy's Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore made an oblique reference after being introduced by Burns.
"The thing I love about this man is he is not afraid or ashamed of Jesus Christ," Washington said. "What he believes he holds fast to, even when he has to stand sometimes by himself."