If Elkton officials vote tonight to deny the Ku Klux Klan a parade permit, the Cecil County town will surely find itself in court, advocates of civil liberties say.
Denying the Klan a permit would violate the group's constitutional right to free expression, said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
"It's real clear. There's not much room for saying no unless they want a lawsuit," Mr. Comstock-Gay said.
Such controversies are "a waste of everyone's money and time," he said. "We believe you give good publicity to bad ideas when you bar a march like this."
The Klan has asked to march through downtown Elkton at 1 p.m. April 4, the 24th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights leaders rallied in Elkton Saturday night against granting the permit.
"If they do march, it's an embarrassment to Elkton, to the county and to the state of Maryland that we still have people with this mentality," said the Rev. John L. Wright, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Maryland chapter.
Both Klansmen and NAACP members plan to attend tonight's meeting of Elkton's mayor and town commissioners. Police Chief Calvin T. Krammes said he doesn't "expect any problems."
Chester J. Doles, a 32-year-old Cecil County roads worker who calls himself the state leader of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said the group wants to march as part of an effort to have the town declare April "White History Month."
Mr. Doles said the march would protest what he described as drug-dealing in a predominantly black area of Elkton.
Acknowledging that whites often buy drugs there, Mr. Doles called the drug trade "one of the principal causes of race-mixing." The white supremacist group advocates racial separation.
The self-styled "fourth-generation Klansman" said the controversy over the permit had brought the Klan welcome publicity. "We have been in the papers 12 times over the last three weeks," he said, plus television interviews.
Mira Boland, who tracks extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, said such controversies can also make money for the Klan.
"It's almost a racket some Klans have gotten into," she said.
"They wait until a permit is denied, they sue and they get a substantial monetary award. It winds up being a fund-raiser for the Klan."
Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the Maryland Commission Human Relations, said the most effective way to protest a Klan march is to hold a counter-demonstration at another place, such as a church, and to ignore the march itself.
"There is too much danger in having counter-demonstrators right there," she said.
"It's best to take a positive, affirmative stand without giving them undue publicity and threatening the public safety."
Elkton, a town of 9,073, is about 8 percent black. It is the Cecil County seat, more noted for quickie weddings offered at Main Street chapels than for white supremacists.
The town administrator, Lewis H. George Jr., said the Klan was dormant in Elkton until late last year when the Doles group got a permit to hand out literature on Main Street.
"There were no repercussions. Nobody made a big fuss over it," he said.
Ms. Boland said Cecil County was a "hotbed of Klan activity" two decades ago, but that only in the last two years had she heard of "any organized signs of life" among Klan supporters there. She said Klan membership is estimated at 4,500 nationwide, and that the Cecil County group probably totaled a dozen or less.
Mr. Doles said Michael Wyant, 30, a carpentry foreman, was "exalted cyclops" of the Klan's Cecil County klavern, known as the Bound for Glory Knight Riders. He wouldn't say how many members the group has.
"That's why we're the Invisible Empire. We never discuss numbers," he said.