Gay Unions Fracture Md.'s Black Caucus

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

Maryland's African American lawmakers are deeply divided in the emerging debate over same-sex marriage, which forces them to balance their communities' bedrock religious convictions against a traditional commitment to civil rights.

In the short time since a Baltimore circuit court declared the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, black Democrats in the General Assembly have reached consensus only on one thing: They don't want the matter put to a vote.

"We've been discussing it ever since the court issued its opinion," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's). "There is a split. And no easy way to resolve it."

Consider Sens. Ulysses Currie and Gwendolyn T. Britt. Both are Democrats who represent progressive African American districts in Prince George's County. But they are on opposite extremes of a gulf that divides their communities.

Currie said he will be guided from the pulpit and by Christian constituents who on this issue alone, he says, "are as conservative as the conservatives."

Britt said she answers to the echoes of the civil rights era and supports gay men and lesbians because she knows "how to walk a mile in someone else's shoes."

The Legislative Black Caucus, perhaps the most reliable voting bloc in Annapolis on progressive issues, is now being lobbied heavily by Republicans to vote for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, which would appear on the ballot in November. Democratic Party leaders, who believe that such a ballot measure would hurt their candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, are also pressuring many of the legislature's 42 black members.

"I'm just hoping and praying the courts will step in," said Currie, who attends an African Methodist Episcopal church.

The divide over gay marriage is not unique to Maryland. During recent elections in Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio, black voters broke from the Democratic Party in significant numbers to support ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage, said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor.

In Virginia, where the legislature just approved a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, seven black lawmakers voted for it, seven against.

Republicans in Maryland have submitted constitutional amendment proposals in both chambers. But for either measure to reach the floor, the party will likely need to execute a rare procedural maneuver in which the measures can bypass a committee vote. Republicans lack the numbers to do that alone, so African American members have become key targets.

The Legislative Black Caucus has taken the stance that a vote should wait until the state's high court issues a ruling, Benson said. When Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock issued her decision on the state's 33-year-old ban last Friday, she stayed the ruling until appellate judges could weigh in.

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