Prominent gay marriage opponent to depart Annapolis in 2014

Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., who will not seek reelection in 2014, speaking against same-sex marriage during an event at his Woodlawn church in 2011.

A prominent opponent of same-sex marriage and other gay rights initiatives in Annapolis for the last two decades is officially retiring from the state legislature next year -- capping a long career in which his stance on gay issues has increasingly put him at odds with legislative colleagues and younger voters.

Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., a 72-year-old Democrat from Baltimore County and pastor of Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, has fought gay rights legislation since he first took office in 1995, and in recent years has shown no sign of evolving that stance despite a changing electorate.


But after same-sex marriage passed in Annapolis and voters approved it last year, Burns said he began contemplating his retirement, growing tired and disheartened by the extent to which a "liberal agenda" has taken hold in the state when it comes to gay rights, immigration issues, tax policy and other matters, he said.

"It's taken a big chunk out of my belief in what is right," he said of the state's passage of same-sex marriage. "If we keep going the way we're going, we're going to end up on a slippery slope that we'll never get out of."


Burns will not seek reelection next year, he said, but will remain active in politics through his Northwest-Catonsville Democratic Club, he said.

"You can have as much influence being a kingmaker as you can being in office yourself," he said. "There is life after the legislature, and I intend to maximize that life."

Burns said his decision is not based on a belief that he might lose reelection in his district, which represents the Woodlawn area.

Colleagues on the opposite end of the state's gay rights battles said Burns has been a steadfast opponent who has waged competent battles against their initiatives and forced them to perfect their messaging.

"Because we've accomplished so much in Maryland, even over his opposition, I don't know if it will really change things in the House," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, an openly gay Democrat from Montgomery County. "But he's forced us to stay on our toes to get measures through the General Assembly and has taught us many lessons that I'm sure we will work hard not to unlearn because he is not there."

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay rights advocacy organization, declined to comment on Burns' departure.

Burns, a longtime civil rights activist and former official in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has long drawn a distinction between the Civil Rights movement and the gay rights movement, arguing any comparison between the two isn't valid.

Beyond marriage, Burns has fought anti-discrimination protections for gay students in Maryland's schools and gay employees in its workplaces, sought to pass legislation specifically banning recognition of same-sex marriages granted in other states, and denounced same-sex marriages as falling outside of his Christian moral code and the social mores he grew up on in Mississippi.


He also drew attention and an admonishment from the General Assembly's ethics committee more recently for using legislative stationery in 2012 to write to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti urging him to silence linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage.

Burns later said Ayanbadejo was entitled to his opinion.

Burns' announced departure from the House, which has previously been reported and discussed among legislators, comes at a time of great change nationally on the issue of gay marriage.

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the provision barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages at the state level. More states continue to legalize such marriages.

Many politicians in Maryland and elsewhere -- including Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama, as well as Sens.  Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin -- have shifted their stances to back same-sex marriage and other legal priorities in the gay community.

But not Burns.


In his challenging those initiatives, Burns has instead preached against societal acceptance of gay relationships as a threat to moral decency even as other legislators sought to protect gay families and bring them into the fold.

Much of the broader shift in attitudes can be traced on a parallel trajectory to Burns own career, which began in 1995 at a time when much of the country agreed with him on gay issues.

In 1996, just after Burns took office, a Gallup poll showed the nation was strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.  In fact, up to half of the people who described themselves as being "liberal" said they were opposed to legal same-sex marriage in their state, the poll found.

Still, generational differences were already apparent, as the poll found "only 54 percent of those ages 18 to 29 oppose it, while 66 percent of those ages 30 to 49, 78 percent of those 50 to 64, and 80 percent of those 65 or older oppose gay marriages," according to a Baltimore Sun story from the time.

Following the Supreme Court's ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act last month, the Pew Research Center found 45 percent in favor of the ruling versus 40 percent against it. Those younger than 30 approved of the decision by a nearly two-to-one margin.

This follows a broader shift. Another recent Gallup poll found fifty-three percent of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be recognized by law. That number stood at 27 percent in 1996.

Still, Burns said he has often heard from constituents who say they appreciate his stance. And he believes, despite the polls, that the nation will eventually come back around to share that stance.


"I believe that time will tell that I was right," he said.

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For a look back, here are some quotes of Burns' from The Baltimore Sun's archives:

"I am unalterably opposed to same-sex marriage, and I have been very aggressive in my opposition to same-sex marriage." – 2013, after being disciplined by the House of Delegates using legislative letterhead to try to silence a Baltimore Ravens player who was vocally supporting same-sex marriage.

"I get really bent out of shape when you talk about gay and lesbian rights as a civil rights issue. Whites can hide their gayness; I cannot hide my blackness." – 2007, on comparisons between the gay rights movement and the broader Civil Rights movement.

"Gays and lesbians of the majority race have always had rights that I didn't have. They are not a minority like I am. I think it's more choice." – 2002, on why he voted against a gay rights bill the year prior.

"What this bill does is tear up the schools. It goes beyond acceptance. It's forcing an agenda on young people." – 2000, about a bill to establish protections for gay students in Maryland schools.


"If I want to hire someone who is gay or not hire them, I ought to have that right without being sued because of it." He added: "And I don't want to improve the chances for someone who is of gay persuasion to ply their behavior." – 1999, on a bill against workplace discrimination against gay and lesbian employees.

"I'm not homophobic," Burns said in an interview. "I have no animosity toward them. I would say go forward and make love -- in private. But don't go down to the courthouse and ask for a license for public approval of your relationship." – 1996, on any effort to extend benefits to gay couples in Maryland.