Rights bill for women fails by 1 Definition sought of sex harassment

March 19, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Male legislators who oppose a state civil rights bill penalizing sexual harassment say no one knows what sex harassment really is -- and they convinced enough colleagues to put the bill's future in doubt yesterday.

The broad civil rights legislation fell one vote short of passage, but the House of Delegates will reconsider it today.

Del. Kenneth H. Masters, D-Baltimore County, cited the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill harassment hearings in Congress and said none of his colleagues knows what really constitutes harassment in the workplace.

"I ask anyone in the the House to define that term," said Mr. Masters, an attorney, during floor debate. "That is insane public policy," he said.

Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's Democrat, angrily disagreed.

"We know what [harassment] is. We certainly know it when it occurs to us. You put your hand on my shoulder or on my knee and you don't know what the difference is?" Ms. Menes exclaimed. "Who are we kidding?".

The measure, modeled after federal civil rights legislation, fell one vote short of the 71 it needed for passage. But an electronic tally board malfunctioned, and the House agreed to reconsider the matter today.

Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, the Judiciary Committee chairman, agreed with Mr. Masters.

Some courts have found that a man is harassing a woman if he puts his hand on her shoulder or compliments her looks, he said.

Under the bill, the employer could be forced to pay the woman monetary damages ranging from $50,000 to $300,000, in addition to other fees, Mr. Arnick said. The bill also provides for civil penalties of up to $50,000.

That could keep businesses from coming to Maryland, he said.

The gender vote was apparent. Women voted 26-6 in favor of the bill. The men split evenly, 44-44. Another 21 delegates didn't vote.

Supporters thus fell one vote short of the 71 needed to pass the bill.

When Del. Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, requested reconsideration because the tally board malfunction caused confusion, her colleagues agreed, by a narrow margin.

The Maryland Civil Rights Act of 1992 would provide more protection against discrimination in the workplace than does current state law. It would enable victims to press for monetary damages before a state commission or court.

Currently, those victims have to file in federal court for monetary damages -- and face lengthy delays in having their cases heard.

Victims currently can take their complaints to the Maryland Human Relations Commission. They can be reinstated in their jobs, awarded back pay and win an order telling their employers to stop discriminating, said Del. Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery County, the bill's sponsor.

But they can't receive monetary damages at the state level, she said.

"There are no deterrents" to employers who discriminate, she said.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill because it could encourage people to file lawsuits, according to the group's press releases.

The chamber prefers solving cases in the Human Relations Commission, which does not have a backlog, rather than in court.

"It's easy to paint this as the business community stomping on people's rights . . . [but] it's just not all black and white," said Stuart Gordon of the Chamber of Commerce.

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