As Md. Court Weighs Same-Sex Marriage, Plaintiffs Hear Echoes of Previous Fight

Charles Blackburn, standing, and his partner, Glen Dehn, are among nine couples suing Maryland for the right to marry. The case is scheduled to be heard by Maryland's highest court today.
Charles Blackburn, standing, and his partner, Glen Dehn, are among nine couples suing Maryland for the right to marry. The case is scheduled to be heard by Maryland's highest court today. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

Those days in Alabama are seared into Charles Blackburn's memories: the bombings, a friend's death by bludgeoning, the marches and prayers for deliverance.

He went to Huntsville in 1964 with a wife and a small daughter, a new minister bent on helping to turn back centuries of injustice. A sheriff locked him in a foul jail cell for trying to register black voters. Vandals smashed the windows of his church when he joined marchers in Selma. In the years since, the prophecies of the civil rights movement have continued to unfold.

And with them has Blackburn's journey of self-acceptance. Over time, he would leave the ministry and his marriage, and come to terms with the fact that he is gay.

Blackburn has resumed his march for civil rights, this time beside his partner of 28 years, Glen Dehn, and 17 other gay and lesbian plaintiffs in a lawsuit asking Maryland to legalize same-sex marriage. "It is self-affirming to be part of this civil rights continuum," said Blackburn, 73.

Today, the case goes before Maryland's highest court, where lawyers will debate whether a 33-year-old law defining marriage as between a man and a woman violates constitutional protections against discrimination. The court is not expected to rule immediately.

In January, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the state's definition of marriage was discriminatory and could not withstand a constitutional challenge.

"When tradition is the guise under which prejudice or animosity hides, it is not a legitimate state interest," wrote Judge M. Brooke Murdock in a 20-page opinion.

The state appealed Murdock's decision and will argue at today's hearing that the law meets constitutional muster and that questions concerning the definition of marriage would be better handled by the state legislature.

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Anne Arundel) said he is planning to resubmit a constitutional amendment for voter approval that would effectively ban same-sex marriage.

"If the state of Maryland legalizes same-sex marriage," he said, "there will be nothing to prevent it from being taught in the public schools as a normal sexual lifestyle."

Historically, the federal government has allowed states to define marriage. For years, Maryland banned interracial marriage. In 1973, it defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Currently, only Massachusetts recognizes same-sex marriage, but several states and the District allow domestic partnerships or civil unions that offer some of the rights of marriage.

Meanwhile, many other states, including Virginia, have passed laws banning same-sex marriage.


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