When the ACLU began seeking gay couples to join its lawsuit, the couple eagerly stepped forward. "It's historic. We want to be a part of it, not sit on the sidelines," Williams says.

Simon says he once assumed that "things like marriage and having children were out of reality for me," he says. "[We want to] to let people know it is a reality."

Compared with the civil rights movement and women's struggle for equality, the drive to sanction gay marriage has progressed, in many areas, with lightning speed. Five years ago, the concept of civil unions was practically unknown. Now, gay marriage is permitted in the Netherlands and Belgium, and was recently endorsed by Canada's Supreme Court. The Massachusetts Supreme Court has upheld the right of gays and lesbians to marry, and San Francisco City Hall last year witnessed the union of thousands of gay couples - unions later voided by the California Supreme Court.

"Canada didn't crumble [as a result of the marriages]. The Netherlands didn't crumble. The United States is not going to crumble," Williams says.

Still, couples like Simon and Williams face fierce opposition to their desire to legally marry or head a family. Last year, President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. Last November, voters in 11 states approved gay marriage bans. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal challenging Florida's ban on adoption by same-sex couples. Last week, a U.S. District judge, citing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, ruled against two Florida lesbians who wanted their Massachusetts marriage recognized in their own state.

In Maryland, a recent Sun poll found that 48 percent of likely voters object to civil unions for same-sex couples. During the legislative session just under way, opponents of same-sex unions in the Maryland General Assembly plan to introduce a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as well as a measure that would bar same-sex couples from adopting children.

On Thursday, Defend Maryland Marriage, the Traditional Values Coalition, The Christian Coalition of Maryland and other anti-gay activist groups hope to draw thousands to a "Pro-Marriage Rally" in Annapolis. "We want to be perfectly clear. We do not hate those who live the homosexual lifestyle," reads a statement on Defend Maryland Marriage's Web site. "Those who would label the defenders of traditional marriage as homophobes or with any other mean spirited word should know that we love and pray for all men. It is due to that love that we find it our duty to defend families, children, and civil society as we know it."

Shifting tactics within the gay rights movement itself also have rattled gay marriage advocates. Williams and Simon say they were disappointed after last year's elections when the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy group, appeared to back off its strong, pro-marriage message. Unwilling to compromise on the marriage issue, the men consider any retrenchment a betrayal that leaves couples in their situation all the more vulnerable to an unsympathetic black community.

Conservative black clergy and their congregations who consider homosexuality a sin played a pivotal role in last year's victories for gay marriage opponents.

In 2003, a national poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 60 percent of black respondents opposed gay unions. In December, Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest child, Bernice King, led thousands of people in an Atlanta march against gay marriage.

In Maryland, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat from Baltimore County and pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church in Woodlawn, is one of the General Assembly's most vocal opponents of gay marriage. During last year's legislative session, Burns sponsored a bill that would invalidate same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries. The bill was defeated. "The very fact that [same-sex marriage] is on the agenda of the nation is a disgrace," Burns, an African-American, said at the time.

Clergy such as Burns and their churches "have been bamboozled," Williams says. Their leaders are allying with conservative whites who, at one time, used the Bible to discriminate against them because of their skin color. Now, he says, they're reading from the same page as their historical oppressors.

Dennis W. and Christine Y. Wiley, co-pastors of Covenant Baptist Church, where Williams and Simon worship, share the couple's belief that gay marriage is not a sin. Their stance has cost them several church members, and prompted a degree of tension within the congregation.

Still, drawn by Covenant's ad in the Washington Blade, Simon and Williams found in the 500-member church "a safe place for us where the children are not going to hear hate messages," Simon says. When he, Williams and the children joined the church, the Wileys jubilantly introduced them to the congregation.

"Are these two loving individuals in a monogamous relationship as we require heterosexuals to be?" Dennis Wiley asks. "If so, then why should we deny them the opportunity to unite together in a permanent way?"

The needs of kids like Kiran, Alonzo and Tiara can be overlooked in the search for grace, Wiley says. "I think religion in this country, especially the more conservative, fundamentalist Christian versions, has tended to focus more on the personal and individualistic salvation rather than looking at the collective and communal kinds of ways in which we can be liberated."

Many African-Americans reject any parallel drawn between the cause for gay marriage and the civil rights movement. They see no comparison between their struggle for equality and gays' desire for the legal protections of marriage.

"The black church tends to be liberal in the area of civil rights, as long as it pertains to our own struggle, but we get very conservative when it goes beyond that," Wiley says.

In part, Williams believes, the problem lies with African-Americans who resent the notion that whites are laying claim to the civil rights legacy for their own purposes. "The black community assumes that white gay activists are trying to infiltrate and tell us what to do," he says.

When a person who is white and gay claims discrimination, "The first thing out of a lot of people's mouths is, `They're white. They don't know,' " says Jasmyne Cannick, a spokesperson for the National Black Justice Coalition.