ANNAPOLIS -- A diverse coalition of Maryland groups backed yesterday a package of bills intended to strengthen state laws against employment, housing or religious discrimination and to extend civil rights protections to homosexuals.
A number of the proposals pushed by the newly formed Maryland Civil Rights Coalition are direct attempts to reverse decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court or to put in Maryland law protections of civil rights proposed by the U.S. Congress but vetoed last year by President Bush.
At least 18 organizations have joined the coalition, said Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, a coalition spokesman.
They include the American Association of University Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association for Retarded Citizens, the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Baltimore Urban League, the Howard County Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women and the AIDS Legislative Council.
The most sweeping measure supported by the coalition is a bill intended to outlaw employment discrimination. Modeled after the 1990 civil rights act passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush, the bill would establish in state law that the burden is on the employer to prove that a discriminatory practice is necessary.
The bill would permit courts to award compensatory damages in case of intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and punitive damages if the employer engages in such practices "with malice, or with reckless or callous indifference."
A separate bill sponsored by Delegate Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery, would make Maryland's fair housing law substantially equivalent to a new federal fair housing law.
The change is necessary to allow Maryland's Commission on Human Relations to continue to process housing discrimination complaints that otherwise would be handled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said.
Delegate Rosenberg said he would sponsor two bills intended to protect the freedom to practice religion. One would require employers to make "a reasonable accommodation" for an employee's religious observance or practice, such as observance of a non-Sunday Sabbath. The other would prohibit the state from restricting a person's free exercise of religion unless there was "a compelling government interest."
Mr. Rosenberg and other backers of the bill say that without that protection, future court decisions could prevent Jewish students from wearing yarmulkes to school or keep students from being excused for religious holidays.
Two bills in the coalition's package would extend Maryland's existing law establishing penalties and reporting requirements for ethnic "hate crimes" to include hate crimes based on gender or sexual orientation.