To Have and to Hold -- for Him and Her

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

On Tuesday, Valentine's Day, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Clerk Robert P. Duckworth remained every bit the purveyor of love and commitment that has earned him the nickname "Courthouse Cupid." He married nearly two dozen couples in short, sweet ceremonies, in much the same way he has officiated in nearly 6,000 weddings in the last dozen years.

For his courthouse weddings, Duckworth stands beneath a trellis laced with faux flowers in the building's wedding room as he helps grooms and brides become husbands and wives. On the walls, Duckworth has hung framed adages about marriage and parenting, such as, "Treat each other each day with fidelity, kindness, dignity and equality." On Valentine's Day, he handed each bride a rose.

On Jan. 31, at a hearing in Annapolis before the House Judiciary Committee, blocks from the county courthouse, Duckworth's demeanor was dramatically different. Missing were the soothing tones he uses to speak of love and commitment. Instead, he pounded the table with his fist as he urged state legislators to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Failure to approve it would "turn the institution of marriage on its head," he said. Then he wheeled around and stormed out of the hearing room without taking questions from the lawmakers.

"He really rallied the troops," said Carrie Evans, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization that works to achieve equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Part of the group's work focuses on defeating state laws and constitutional amendments that would deny marriage to same-sex couples. "The room was mostly filled with supporters [of a ban], and they were cheering. It was like a pep rally, with him being the cheerleader down there."

Duckworth, who at 65 has been married for 39 years, has performed wedding ceremonies for Maryland luminaries including Parris N. Glendening, the former governor; Joe DeFrancis, chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club; and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

He has married teenagers, octogenarians and grooms in tuxedos, jeans and military uniforms. He has said "for richer or poorer" to those both rich and poor, and he has even conducted some ceremonies in his limited Spanish. But he draws the line at the prospect of marrying couples of the same gender.

A Republican, Duckworth has emerged as one of the state's most outspoken critics of same-sex marriage, an issue now before the Maryland General Assembly. If approved by three-fifths of Maryland lawmakers, the constitutional amendment to ban such marriages will appear on the ballot in November.

On Jan. 20, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled that the state's 33-year-old law banning gay marriage is discriminatory. She immediately stayed the decision pending an appeal.

During the Jan. 31 hearing, Duckworth said that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, he will refuse to marry gay couples. His statement surprised some lawmakers.

"Bob's a very compassionate person," said Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus (D-Anne Arundel), whose oldest daughter was married by Duckworth. "He's usually very calm and controlled. I think he felt so strongly about this particular situation that his emotions took over. . . . That's the first time I've ever seen Bob like that."

In an interview, Duckworth said he believes that marriage between a man and a woman is "natural law." Any law that contradicts it "would be invalid," he said.

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