New coalition of 18 groups to push state civil rights bills

January 29, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

A new coalition plans to push civil rights bills in the state legislature that would expand anti-discrimination laws affecting religious freedom, housing and employment and provide more protections for women and homosexuals.

The Maryland Civil Rights Coalition, which includes 18 groups, hopes to fight for legislation that would maintain some civil rights protections that have been narrowed under recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Lawmakers are drafting a bill modeled after current federal civil rights legislation that would shift the burden of proof to the employer to prove an employment practice that negatively affects women and minorities is required by business necessity.

Critics have contended that such measures would lead to hiring quotas, but civil rights advocates disagree.

The Maryland bills that are being drafted would:

* Amend the state fair housing law to prohibit discrimination against families with children and handicapped people in the sale or rental of housing. The bill would make state law similar to new federal anti-discrimination laws so the Maryland Human Relations Commission could investigate such cases.

The legislation, which will be sponsored by Del. Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery, and 41 other delegates, is supported by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Petzold said.

The provision prohibiting discrimination against families with children would not apply to housing for senior citizens, she said.

* Extend Maryland's criminal and statistical reporting statutes on hate crimes to include acts against people because of their sexual orientation, gender or disability.

"Harassment takes many forms, whether it's painting swastikas on a synagogue or making sexually harassing statements to women," said Del. Gene W. Counihan, D-Montgomery, a sponsor. "This bill intends to address that and provide some penalties."

Current law addresses hate crimes targeted at people because of their race, religion or national origin.

* Require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious observances and practices in the manner that the employee deems best and that does not cause undue hardship on the business.

A similar bill died in legislative committees last year, said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-City, the sponsor.

* Prohibit the government from restricting a person's exercise of religion unless it serves a "compelling" interest. The bill seeks to counteract a Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for the government to restrict such religious exercises, Rosenberg said.

The Maryland Civil Rights Coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Baltimore Urban League, the Howard County Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the Maryland Disability Law Center, the Baltimore Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Women's Law Center and the Organization of Chinese Americans Inc.

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