Are you married? Don't ask

March 12, 1993

In this era of political correctness, a comment by a public official -- no matter how innocent it may be-- can become subject to exacting scrutiny. When a bias is suggested, condemnation routinely follows.

Witness the recent flap over remarks made by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who inquired aloud at a recent meeting with the governor and fellow congressmen why so few students with "normal names" had won state scholarships. Mr. Bartlett was commenting about the preponderence of scholarship winners with Asian surnames, and he paid a price for his inept remarks -- as well he should have.

In a related matter not long ago, Gail Bates, an aide to Howard County Executive Charles Ecker, asked an applicant for the county Human Rights Commission whether she was married.

The commission got wind of this and asked Mr. Ecker to relieve Ms. Bates of the responsibility for screening applicants to county boards and commissions.

The county executive has refused the request. But he has said that Ms. Bates will no longer interview applicants without another staffer's being present and that some training on appropriate interview questions would be forthcoming.

We think his approach is the correct one, given the limited offense.

While Ms. Bates' question may imply some bias toward married persons, we are not at all certain what that bias is. Because the interview was for a volunteer post and not employment, it is unclear whether any law was violated.

Still, that may be a loophole of little consequence because Mr. Ecker has already admitted that the question was inappropriate.

Ms. Bates is no stranger to such controversies, and we do not suggest that she is an innocent in all this. Last year, Mr. Ecker temporarily removed her from screening applicants for the Human Rights Commission after it was revealed that Ms. Bates had publicly expressed opposition to homosexuals being protected under county law.

Mr. Ecker has reinstated Ms. Bates, noting that it is he who makes the final decision on appointments. That is his prerogative. Whatever political price there is to be paid over this, Mr. Ecker appears willing to pay it.

The commission may view the executive's actions as insufficient, but there is a limit to how far political correctness can be twisted.

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