Civil rights bill squeaks through House, faces even tougher path in Senate

March 20, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Supporters of a state civil rights bill barely mustered enough votes to push it through the Maryland House of Delegates yesterday, and they face an even more difficult time in the Senate.

The controversial bill has been sent to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, one of the most conservative in the General Assembly.

Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, declined to speculate on its chances. "I haven't even read it yet. I don't rely on newspapers" for information on a bill, he said.

The legislation, modeled after the federal civil rights act, would provide more protection at the state level for victims of racial, sexual or religious discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Employers who discriminate would face civil penalties and could be ordered to pay the victim monetary damages.

The bill's sponsor, Del. Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery, said she plans to lobby the Senate hard for the bill, which took two tries to getout of the House.

Delegates sent the bill to the Senate by a count of 73-56, only two votes more than the majority it needed. A day earlier, the bill failed by one vote after a heated debate about sexual harassment that pitted male legislators against their female counterparts.

Supporters got the original vote reconsidered because a malfunctioning vote tally board caused confusion during the first vote Wednesday.

Women voted 26-7 for the bill yesterday, while the men voted against it 47-49. Twelve delegates, including congressional candidate Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, did not vote.

Male delegates Wednesday had criticized the bill that would seriously penalize employers who sexually harass workers, complaining that no one really knows what constitutes harassment.

Their remarks elicited an angry retort from Del. Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George's, a 25-year House veteran who asked them whom they were trying to kid.

Opponents yesterday concentrated their fire on the possible burdenthe bill could place on small businesses, the state Human Relations Commission and the courts.

The bill "looks good and sounds good," said Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, but "the end result of it is that you've made it more difficult for the business community in Maryland."

Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, said he believes the bill would increase pressure on "mom and pop" businesses to settle bogus complaints of discrimination.

But businesses already face the same discrimination penalties from the federal government, supporters shot back.

If Maryland has a similar state law, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would refer discrimination cases to the state andreimburse Maryland $500,000 for the cost, Ms. Petzold said.

Under current state law, victims of discrimination can take their complaints to the Maryland Human Relations Commission. There, they can be reinstated in their jobs, awarded back pay and win an order telling their employer to stop discriminating.

But they have to go to federal court -- and face a lengthy backlog of cases -- if they want to receive monetary damages, Ms. Petzold said.

If enacted, her bill would enable victims to ask a state commission or court for monetary damages.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has been fighting the bill actively. Its representatives complained yesterday that the bill's supporters refused to work toward a compromise with the chamber.

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