Overreacting in Howard

July 24, 1992

Not surprisingly, attempts to appoint a homosexual to Howard County's Human Rights Commission have stirred a great deal of controversy. A public hearing this week was attended by 120 people. Most of them spoke in favor of the appointment of Jan Nyquist, a lesbian and Columbia resident, who was nominated recently by County Executive Charles Ecker. Those opposed, while fewer in number, were fervent in their position that appointing a gay endorsed homosexuality.

But one recent incident -- the failure of the panel to endorse Ms. Nyquist before the county council votes on the appointment next week -- has been largely misunderstood as an attempt to block a gay from sitting on the commission.

The commission's tie vote angered Commission Chairman Roger Jones, who said it was "damn, damn sad that we cannot even pass a motion assuring that the rights of gay persons are protected."

Mr. Jones overstates the case by implying that those who voted against a resolution to effectively endorse Ms. Nyquist showed an antipathy for supporting the rights of homosexuals or Ms. Nyquist. In fact, the resolution never mentions her name, only that the commission supported the idea of a "qualified homosexual" sitting on the panel.

But earlier the commission did unanimously endorse the appointment of Bob Healy, a gay man who had sought the position but was ultimately rejected by Mr. Ecker. The same commission did not suddenly turn anti-gay in a matter of weeks.

Instead, arguments over procedure ultimately prevailed, causing some members of the commission to reject the resolution. Those members concluded a vote favoring even a thinly veiled endorsement was redundant, since their views had already been stated in the Healy case. In addition, a second endorsement might establish a pattern whereby the commission would begin stating its preference for whom it wanted as a member.

Nothing in county law provides for the commission to assume such a role. Supreme Court justices are not consulted about who they want to sit on the nation's highest court. For the sake of integrity, the commission should not embark on a practice that would turn the nominating process into a popularity contest.

The issue of gay rights is one that is likely to be around long after the nomination of Ms. Nyquist is resolved. Fundamentalist Christian groups in Howard County are fast organizing themselves politically and pushing a conservative agenda. They have every right to do so.

But the powers that be must keep their wits about them in the face of mounting pressure. They can start by not overreacting.

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