GLEN BURNIE – Don Dwyer Jr. and his family bow their heads in unison before he leads them in prayer on a Sunday afternoon, thanking God for the meal before them.
They open their eyes and dig into the salad and breadsticks. Pizza Hut is half-empty, so the waitress could be by with their deep-dish at any moment.
Dwyer is not one to be timid about the importance of his faith or his family, whether in the local pizza place or in the Maryland General Assembly, where he is a Republican delegate from Anne Arundel county, and perhaps the Legislature’s most conservative – and controversial – member.
While other politicians may choose their words carefully to attract as many voters as possible, Dwyer said he is comfortable doing and saying what he thinks is right, knowing that if he loses his seat, he will be able to spend more time with his family.
“If [re-election] was the only thing I was enamored with, I’d never do what I do,” Dwyer said. “If you like what I do, send me back [to the General Assembly], and if you don’t, send me home to my wife and children and I’ll be forever grateful.”
During the recently concluded session of the General Assembly, Dwyer led what could only be called a crusade against gay marriage, first introducing a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage, and then trying to remove the Baltimore judge who ruled against a current statewide prohibition.
He said that despite sky-rocketing divorce rates, the institution of marriage is more threatened by same-sex marriage. Dwyer argues that if gay marriage were to be legalized, children would be taught that homosexuality is normal.
“When that happens, there’s no longer a reason to marry or procreate,” he said.
Dwyer said he cried in church before calling for the removal of Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock. He called this “the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in my life.”
He was initially concerned about the retribution he might face, he said, but was moved to tears when he compared the small sacrifice he had to make to the suffering of Jesus for man’s sins.
Retribution was not long in coming.
About 20 delegates walked out of the House when Dwyer began to call for the removal of Murdock.
One of those delegates, Neil F. Quinter, D – Howard, called Dwyer’s actions “an example of sheer, pure demagoguery.”
House Speaker and fellow Anne Arundel delegate, Michael E. Busch, leader of the Democrats in the House, has a more measured view of Dwyer, calling him a “unique” member of the General Assembly.
“Delegate Dwyer is basically a one-issue legislator . . . he’s basically centered his career on the Ten Commandments,” Busch said.
“What he’s become is a polarizing influence, where he doesn’t want to find common ground on things, so I don’t see him being that effective,” Busch said.
The key to understanding Dwyer’s uncompromising stands in Annapolis lies in his Glen Burnie neighborhood.
Dwyer lives in the house in which he was raised as a child, with his wife, Cheryl, and his three children, Ashley, 18, Jennifer, 16, and Gregg, 14. He bought the house from his father.
Dwyer’s brother, Duane, lives in the house next door, with his wife and five children.
Cheryl Dwyer grew up in the house across the street, where her mother still lives. Cheryl has known Dwyer since she was 14.
Even Dwyer’s sister, while she does not live in the neighborhood, works in Annapolis and advocates for some of the same issues Dwyer has dedicated himself to.
“In the marriage battle, she has been pretty much at my side throughout that whole ordeal,” he said of his sister, Deborah A. Belcher.
The Dwyers raise their three children with traditional values that seem almost anachronistic in a time of “Sex and the City” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
“Our children, from the time they were able to hear words, have understood that they won’t date,” he said.
Dwyer and his wife said they believe the primary goal of dating is sex, which – outside the confines of marriage – violates the “relationship that God has clearly established for them.”
So they have forbidden their children from pursuing relationships that could become intimate until they are ready to get married and commit to a person for life.
Dwyer acknowledged that his two teenage daughters, Ashley and Jennifer, have questioned him about the dating policy, but said they understand its purpose.
“I guess now we’re kind of used to it,” Ashley said.
Dwyer has not set any age when his children will be allowed to look for a spouse. Instead, he said, he will leave that up to God.
“In the end, if I’m wrong, my children will let me know about it,” he said. “But I don’t think that will be the case.”
Still, Dwyer is not all discipline. He and Gregg spend much of their free time working together in a small canvas enclosure in their driveway rebuilding a 1967 Pro-Street Mustang Fastback.
Dwyer said he was raised as a Catholic but grew disillusioned with the faith and until about 12 years ago was not particularly religious and was, as he puts it, “very driven by money.”
He came back to religion when his brother, Duane, invited him to church services one Sunday, and he has been going ever since.
In addition to guiding his parenting, Dwyer’s faith guides his politics. He said the Bible, or “God’s written law,” is the most important document to his work as a delegate – more important than either the state or US constitutions.
Dwyer said civil laws created by people must adhere to God’s laws, or the civil law will be “no law at all.”
“If law becomes what man says it is, murder one day will no longer be murder,” Dwyer said. “Oh, that’s right, we already did that: 1973, in the Roe v. Wade decision, mere men determined that murder was no longer murder.”
Jamie Raskin, an American University constitutional law professor and Democratic candidate for state Senate from Montgomery County, said Dwyer’s belief that the Bible is more important to lawmaking than the state and US constitutions is “a basic fallacy.”
“I think he could use a refresher course in American constitutional history and civics,” Raskin said, noting that the Bible has been used in the past to justify slavery, male supremacy and bans on interracial and interfaith marriages.
While Dwyer is a polarizing figure in Annapolis, he is received with respect and admiration at Pasadena Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which his family has attended for more than three years.
Jennifer Dwyer plays piano for the small church, which is located in a residential neighborhood not far from their house. A typical service attracts about 80 people, according to the church’s pastor, Thomas L. Wenger.
Wenger lives in Dwyer’s district and voted for him in the last election.
“I admire him, he’s a man of intense conviction,” Wenger said. “As he showed with the impeachment thing, he will stand for that conviction.”
Dwyer regularly makes announcements during services about what is going on in Annapolis, keeping the church “pretty well-informed,” Wenger said.
The pastor identifies himself as a conservative Christian, but said he tries to not talk about his political views from the pulpit because he doesn’t “think that’s the church’s role.”
Dwyer acknowledges that demands on his time during the legislative session keep him from his family longer than he would like. But, he said, he tries to never be away from them more than two nights in a row. “I’ve only got a limited amount of time with my children, and this [Annapolis] is not where my life or my heart is,” he said. “When this all goes away, what do you have left? Only your family.”