Rights panel nominee challenged in Howard NOW blasts Collett's anti-abortion stance

November 18, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

The nomination to the Howard County Human Rights Commission of a Baptist minister, whose congregation protested abortion by displaying hundreds of tiny crosses on its lawn and believes homosexuality is "not Christian or healthy," has angered some women's rights and abortion rights advocates.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker nominated the Rev. D. Walter Collett, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Columbia, to join the nine-member commission that hears cases of alleged discrimination and makes recommendations on human rights issues and legislation.

The County Council will hear public comments on the nomination today and vote Dec. 2.

The county chapter of the National Organization for Women has urged its members to express their opposition to the nomination, and the Columbia Democratic Club plans to testify against it.

In a note accompanying its newsletter, NOW told its 300 members that Mr. Collett is "not in favor of human rights for women, gays or lesbians" and should not be appointed to the commission.

"He has far more concern for the rights of fetuses than rights granted by the Constitution to grown women and men, and most offensive of all is that he believes he speaks for God in all such matters," the note said.

The group played a lead role in persuading the Council to withdraw the nomination of Annette Keilson to the Human Rights Commission in 1986 because the Columbia businesswoman opposed gay rights.

Mr. Ecker said he nominated Mr. Collett because "I am concerned . . .that all viewpoints be represented. I don't think boards or commissions should have one viewpoint."

He said he had no position on abortion or gay rights and did not anticipate any controversy when he nominated Mr. Collett.

Gail Bates, a top aide to the executive, said the brewing controversy over the nomination "kind of blows me away. We certainly have people on our boards and commissions with other points of view."

"The issue is not my stand on abortion or gay rights, but the right of citizens to participate in the governmental process," Mr. Collett said. He took issue with NOW's characterization of him. "I am not a mouthpiece of God because God speaks for himself through the Scriptures," he said.

"I believe a significant portion of the county's citizenry would disagree with NOW, and those citizens are entitled to participate in the governmental processes, too," he said. "Shutting them out is in fact a discriminatory act and not healthy for good government."

Mr. Collett said no one has complained to him about his nomination. "But I am not surprised that there is opposition," he said.

"There is an active pro-abortion lobby."

The pastor, who started the Covenant Baptist Church in 1982, said he is "not in favor of bashing homosexuals.

"It is not the legal or the Christ-like thing to do, and I believe I should act within the confines of law. If the law is not just, it && should be changed."

County law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as race, creed, religion, physical or mental handicap, color, sex, national origin, age, occupation, personal appearance, political opinion or marital status.

Mr. Collett declined comment on whether he would recommendchanges in the sexual-orientation provision of the law, saying he would "like to get more familiar with the scope of the law" before taking a stand.

But he said his 225-member church "would take a stand that homosexual behavior is not scriptural, Christian or healthy. We are entitled to that view as they are to their viewpoint."

The Baptist congregation gained attention in May when it displayed tiny blue and pink crosses representing the number of abortions in Maryland.

Mr. Collett said his opponents on the abortion issue "seem to be saying they are concerned about everyone's human rights but the human rights of babies."

On Thursday, the County Council received eight calls about Mr. Collett's nomination, seven of them in opposition.

On Friday, calls to the council's office ran in favor of the minister, with 32 of 35 callers supporting his nomination.

Gail Bates, a top aide to Mr. Ecker, said three callers complained of the nomination.

Wanda Hurt, vice president of the Columbia Democratic Club, said she would testify against the nomination.

"My main concern is that he seems a very inflexible ideologue who would just vote a straight line of a fundamentalist Baptist minister. I don't care if a person on the commission is pro-life, as long as the person was flexible and willing to listen."

Carol Simpson of Cooksville, who said she is a friend of the minister, called him "an outstanding person" whose "moral standpoint and views are very strong and biblical. There are a lot of people who feel like he does, and he would be a good representative of those who take the pro-life position."

Joseph Patrick McInnis, of Columbia, who called to protest the nomination, said Mr. Collett "is a far right winger against gay rights and thinks a fetus has more rights than a woman."

He expressed concern that Mr. Collett would "push his religious beliefs and not give a fair interpretation of the constitution."

Columbia resident Phyllis Nash, president of the Howard County chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, said, "As a pro-choice woman, I disapprove of this.

"You can say all you want about freedom of speech but this would result in a violation of [the doctrine of] separation of church and state," she said.

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