Prominent gay marriage opponent to depart Annapolis in 2014

Announced retirement of Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., in office since 1995, indicative of broader shift

  • Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., who will not seek reelection in 2014, speaking against same-sex marriage during an event at his Woodlawn church in 2011.
Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., who will not seek reelection in 2014,… (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock…)
July 08, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

A prominent opponent of same-sex marriage and other gay rights initiatives in Annapolis for the last two decades is officially retiring from the state legislature next year -- capping a long career in which his stance on gay issues has increasingly put him at odds with legislative colleagues and younger voters.

Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., a 72-year-old Democrat from Baltimore County and pastor of Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, has fought gay rights legislation since he first took office in 1995, and in recent years has shown no sign of evolving that stance despite a changing electorate.

But after same-sex marriage passed in Annapolis and voters approved it last year, Burns said he began contemplating his retirement, growing tired and disheartened by the extent to which a "liberal agenda" has taken hold in the state when it comes to gay rights, immigration issues, tax policy and other matters, he said.

"It's taken a big chunk out of my belief in what is right," he said of the state's passage of same-sex marriage. "If we keep going the way we're going, we're going to end up on a slippery slope that we'll never get out of."

Burns will not seek reelection next year, he said, but will remain active in politics through his Northwest-Catonsville Democratic Club, he said.

"You can have as much influence being a kingmaker as you can being in office yourself," he said. "There is life after the legislature, and I intend to maximize that life."

Burns said his decision is not based on a belief that he might lose reelection in his district, which represents the Woodlawn area.

Colleagues on the opposite end of the state's gay rights battles said Burns has been a steadfast opponent who has waged competent battles against their initiatives and forced them to perfect their messaging.

"Because we've accomplished so much in Maryland, even over his opposition, I don't know if it will really change things in the House," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, an openly gay Democrat from Montgomery County. "But he's forced us to stay on our toes to get measures through the General Assembly and has taught us many lessons that I'm sure we will work hard not to unlearn because he is not there."

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay rights advocacy organization, declined to comment on Burns' departure.

Burns, a longtime civil rights activist and former official in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has long drawn a distinction between the Civil Rights movement and the gay rights movement, arguing any comparison between the two isn't valid.

Beyond marriage, Burns has fought anti-discrimination protections for gay students in Maryland's schools and gay employees in its workplaces, sought to pass legislation specifically banning recognition of same-sex marriages granted in other states, and denounced same-sex marriages as falling outside of his Christian moral code and the social mores he grew up on in Mississippi.

He also drew attention and an admonishment from the General Assembly's ethics committee more recently for using legislative stationery in 2012 to write to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti urging him to silence linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage.

Burns later said Ayanbadejo was entitled to his opinion.

Burns' announced departure from the House, which has previously been reported and discussed among legislators, comes at a time of great change nationally on the issue of gay marriage.

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the provision barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages at the state level. More states continue to legalize such marriages.

Many politicians in Maryland and elsewhere -- including Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama, as well as Sens.  Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin -- have shifted their stances to back same-sex marriage and other legal priorities in the gay community.

But not Burns.

In his challenging those initiatives, Burns has instead preached against societal acceptance of gay relationships as a threat to moral decency even as other legislators sought to protect gay families and bring them into the fold.

Much of the broader shift in attitudes can be traced on a parallel trajectory to Burns own career, which began in 1995 at a time when much of the country agreed with him on gay issues.

In 1996, just after Burns took office, a Gallup poll showed the nation was strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.  In fact, up to half of the people who described themselves as being "liberal" said they were opposed to legal same-sex marriage in their state, the poll found.

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