Maryland Del. Burns pressures churches, blacks to oppose marriage-equality bill

 Matt MahurinUnsatisfied with how Maryland’s religious community campaigned against same-sex-marriage legislation that died in the state House of Delegates in 2011, Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., is taking matters into his own hands.

Burns, a Democrat and black pastor who has served as Baltimore County’s delegate since 1995, recently told The American Independent that he is determined to organize a massive coalition of anti-marriage-equality supporters, consisting largely of black Baptist leaders. Additionally, he is trying to drum up united opposition against another effort to pass a same-sex-marriage bill in 2012 from every black delegate and senator in the Maryland General Assembly.

“We’re working very, very hard to make sure the bill will not pass in 2012,” Burns said. “We are meeting, as we speak, to come together in force to let legislators know [if they vote to legalize marriage, they] will be under the spotlight.”

At its core, Burns’ layered plan involves coalescing all gay-marriage opponents into a single force. He told TAI that he and other delegates are working on forming a Prince George's County Coalition and Baltimore County Coalition, legislative groups whose main goal will be to drum up support against the legislation in those two counties with large African-American populations. Burns held a press conference on this renewed effort at his Rising Sun Baptist Church last month and has another conference planned later this week.

“Last time, the religious community slept this issue, but they’re not going to sleep it this time,” Burns told TAI. “Rather than too little too late, it’s going to be so much so soon.”

Burns' targets: blacks and churches

Toward the end of this year’s gay marriage campaign in Maryland, the black community became a focal point of the legislation, with opponents pushing the narrative that same-sex marriage advocates were co-opting the Civil Rights movement from the African-American community.

Burns said that, this time around, the strategy of rallying the churches will be intensified. He told TAI he intends to focus on black Baptist churches in Prince George’s County, as well as apostolic and Methodist churches. “Even some white churches,” he said. “We’re going to tell pastors to let their members know their delegates are down in Annapolis supporting same-sex marriage.”

But another major bullet point on Burns’ to-do list is to summon support against the marriage-equality bill from the state’s Catholic community. The first step in that direction, he said, is finding a replacement for Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who last month was elevated to the position of a cardinal and reassigned to Rome.

“[O’Brien] was stalwart in his support against same-sex marriage,” Burns said.

Before his departure, the archbishop privately asked Gov. O'Malley not to promote the same-sex legislation when it is revived in the Legislature next year, as reported the Baltimore Sun last month after the governor's office released O'Brien's July 20 letter and O'Malley's Aug. 4 response. The governor defied the archbishops's request "not to allow your role as leader of our state to be used in allowing the debate surrounding the definition of marriage to be determined by mere political expediency” by announcing two days later that he would make legalizing same-sex marriage a legislative priority.

According to the Sun, O'Malley told O'Brien that they shared similar views on eradicating poverty, supporting a progressive income tax and opposing the death penalty, but "on the public issue of granting equal civil marital rights to same sex couples, you and I disagree." (O'Malley himself opposed legalizing same-sex marriage when he ran for governor in 2006.)

Burns said even if the archbishop was unable to sway the governor, he did influence Catholic Marylanders. He told TAI that he has been in touch with the Catholic hierarchy in Baltimore and will be meeting with the Maryland Catholic Conference to work on finding a new archbishop who will be as outspoken against gay marriage as O’Brien was.

Blacks in the Legislature are also major targets for Burns, who said that if all of Maryland’s black senators and delegates voted against the marriage-equality bill, it would not pass.

“Same-sex marriage is anathema to our tradition,” Burns said.

Despite Burns’ focus on his African-American colleagues, he would not comment on the position of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, of which he is a member.

The Black Caucus did not include same-sex marriage among its 2011 legislative priorities (PDF). When asked if the caucus would be taking a position on same-sex marriage in 2012, Black Caucus Executive Director Deriece K. Bennett told TAI via email that that the Caucus "has not discussed any legislation for the 2012 General Session."

At present, Burns said he is summoning the Prince George’s County and Baltimore County Coalitions against same-sex marriage. Once these legislative caucuses are formed, Burns said he will work on trying to united Maryland’s various anti-gay marriage groups, such as Protect Marriage Maryland, Marriage for Maryland ( and Maryland for Marriage, which is run by the National Organization for Marriage .

The strategy of targeting religious and minority groups on this issue is not exclusive to same-sex-marriage opponents.

Equality Maryland, the largest LGBT-rights group in Maryland and one of the leading groups in a coalition supporting same-sex marriage in Maryland, has stated plans to try to summon support from churches and communities with high concentrations of African-Americans, mainly in Prince George’s and Baltimore Counties.

“We plan to have a strong presence in various religious groups,” Patrick Wojahn, chair of Equality Maryland Foundation, told TAI. “We are focusing more on churches.”

Burns will be hosting a strategizing press conference at the Greater Harvest Baptist Church in Baltimore on Friday, but on Wednesday, Equality Maryland is hosting its own strategy session, billed as a cocktail event to "celebrate and honor" support already provided from O’Malley and other state leaders, something that didn’t happen earlier this year.

The event, which will be held at the Chevy Chase Town Hall in Chevy Chase, Md., at 5:30 p.m., is "a chance to celebrate the progress made in what we believe will be a victory," Wojahn said. "We have the momentum behind us to win. We are on the right side of history.”

Overturning same-sex marriage ... before it's legalized

Though Maryland's Legislature has not yet begun a debating same-sex marriage, Burns has already begun talking about starting a petition and collecting enough signatures to ban same-sex marriage via voter referendum.

While amending a state's constitution to exclude marriage to straight couples has been a tactic some states -- most recently Minnesota -- have considered to preemptively thwart marriage- equality legislation, Maryland law doesn't work that way. The people don't have the power to amend the constitution; they do, however, have the power to veto legislation passed by the General Assembly. Thus, if enough signatures are collected to qualify for a referendum, Marylanders could attempt to reverse a law expanding marriage to same-sex couples.

But a few things must happen before the petition could begin gathering signatures, according to  referendum petition procedures (PDF) published by the Maryland State Board of Elections (SBOE):

  • A political committee would have to be already established with the election board.
  • The petition sponsor must know or anticipate the referendum question will be placed on the ballot "before money is collected or spent to support or oppose the question."
  • The 2012 bill legalizing same-sex marriage must pass.

Burns told TAI that he has not yet started gathering signatures for such a referendum -- not just because it would be violating state law, but because he's not convinced the same-sex marriage bill will pass. But, he said, he will do everything in his power to make sure it doesn't

“The ball is in my court,” he said.