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Some see parallels in gay marriage debate


Gay activists and civil rights advocates hope to help shape bills under consideration today in Annapolis that would redefine the institution of marriage in Maryland, a topic that harks back to the state's unpleasant history on the subject of who could marry whom.

In 1664, lawmakers in Colonial Maryland enacted the nation's first ban on interracial marriages, a prohibition that stood for more than 300 years, until a few months shy of a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court finding that ruled miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

Odeana R. Neal, who teaches a class in sexual orientation and the law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said the dismantling of miscegenation laws set a relevant precedent for lawsuits such as the Massachusetts case that prompted that state's recent high court ruling that civil unions are unconstitutional.

"One way to look at this is to say the man-woman-only language is another marriage restriction that has to go away," said Neal. "Or maybe not."

Opponents of same-sex marriage -- including many black church leaders -- say it has nothing in common with interracial marriage. They point to religious dictates and say gay weddings run counter to society's legitimate interests in building families.

Whether the two are equivalent may be up to the courts to decide.

"The Supreme Court has never been as definitive about sexual orientation" as it has been about race, Neal said.

Today, two Maryland couples -- one a pair of lesbians, the other a pair of gay men -- will confront lawmakers to demand recognition of their California-licensed marriages, as Maryland legislators consider bills to block same-sex marriage. The actions shortly after President Bush's declaration that he will support a constitutional amendment prohibiting the unions.

"The Constitution has never been amended to take rights civil liberties and civil rights away from people in this country," James B. Packard said yesterday. "We, and these other couples, only want the ability to share the same love and commitment that heterosexual couples take for granted."

Packard, 39, a Rockville real estate developer, married makeup artist Erwin Gomez last week in San Francisco after obtaining one of the disputed licenses the city clerk has been issuing to homosexual couples there since Feb 12. He plans to testify at a 1 p.m. House Judiciary Committee hearing on two bills that would close loopholes in state marriage law.

Del. Charles R. Boutin sponsored a constitutional amendment, which voters would have to ratify in the fall, that would establish only marriages between a man and a woman as valid in Maryland.

A bill sponsored by Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat from Baltimore County, would make same-sex marriages performed in another state or foreign country invalid here.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican who introduced a Senate version of Burns' bill, said the pressure was on "to protect the sanctity of marriage between men and women."

Andrew J. Cherlin, the Griswold Professor of Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins University and an expert on the subject of marriage, said the mores of marriage have evolved over time.

"It used to be that people used to have lots of children to help out on the farm and stay a step ahead of disease and death. You needed laborers. But those days are over," said Cherlin, who teaches sociology courses on the American family.

In the earliest days of Maryland history, the person who performed a black-white wedding ceremony could be fined. White servants who married slaves and free Africans who married white servants were enslaved.

Maryland legislators amended the law repeatedly, long after slavery was abolished, to include other people of color in the ban.

In 1965, then-Del. Clarence M. Mitchell III introduced the first bill to repeal miscegenation laws. It died that year and in 1966, when another legislator reintroduced the bill after a Samoan man and white woman were denied a marriage license in Maryland. The couple eventually married 40 miles from home, in Washington, D.C.

The law was repealed in 1967, within months of the Loving vs. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found such bans to be unconstitutional.

That was also the year Earl Arnett married Ethel Ennis, a jazz singer, during one of her gigs in Colorado.

His father opposed their marriage, disowning his son in a nine-page letter, the theme of which amounted to: "We've not gained a daughter but lost a son."

Ennis is black. Arnett is white.

"It was a manifesto," he recalled of the letter.

The debate over whether gays should be allowed to marry has a familiar ring for Arnett.

"Fear of the unknown, fear of the unusual, blah, blah. I hear some of the same fears, the irrationality and the reluctance to look at the source of the fear and rationality when it comes to gay marriage," he said.

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