A bill to license Howard County's nine massage parlors would unfairly discriminate against the Korean women who own them, the County Council was told last night.
Four attorneys representing some of the owners of massage parlors said their clients run legitimate businesses and may be forced to close if the legislation passes unchanged.
"My clients welcome a licensing law, but this one's unfair," said Vince Guida, who represents a union of massage parlors. "Massage is part of their culture, part of their health for thousands of years. We should give them credit for their training elsewhere."
The legislation would bar massage parlor employees from participating in prostitution, lewd displays or indecent behavior. It would require employees to receive medical checkups within 30 days of applying for the license, have background checks and be fingerprinted. The bill also would allow county officials to inspect the parlors at any time.
The bill would not apply to health professionals, athletic trainers, therapists certified by the National Certification Board for Bodywork and Massage Therapies, therapists who have completed advanced training in approved schools, or cosmetologists and barbers licensed to massage hands, feet, faces, scalps, necks and shoulders.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker says the bill is necessary to rid the county of massage parlors that cater to clients seeking sex.
"We don't want to make it difficult for masseuses and masseurs that provide legitimate massage therapy," Mr. Ecker said when he sent the bill to the council in late December. "There are a lot of legitimate massage parlors, and we want the public to know that. But we want to thwart those that are a front for prostitution."
Attorneys representing the massage parlors said the county does not understand that massage is part of the Korean culture.
The massage training the women received should be accepted as readily as massage therapy training in this country, they said.
The lawyers portrayed their clients as innocents who either could not speak English or who were afraid of testifying before the council. Part of the women's upbringing, the lawyers said, was to keep silent and remain private. Six of the massage parlor owners attended last night's hearing.
The attorneys said the bill should be radically altered before it is enacted.
They objected particularly to requirements that employees receive medical checkups, have background checks and be fingerprinted.
The attorneys objected also to the provision that would allow county officials to inspect the parlors at any time. That amounts to unreasonable search, they said, and the intense scrutiny implies that the women are guilty of a crime.
Further, the fact that county police have arrested five women for prostitution within the past two years indicates that the current law is working, they said.
Heather D'Amore, vice chairwoman of the Harper's Choice Village Board and a certified massage therapist, said the issue is not one of culture. The issue is one of health, she said.
Massage therapists should be made to conform with U.S. health standards, Ms. D'Amore said. Anyone who does massage without a knowledge of physiology and anatomy is dangerous, she said.
The first thing every masseur or masseuse should do, she said, is take a health history of the client. "If you massage someone who has a history of blood clots and you don't ask, you could break that clot loose and send them on their way," Ms. D'Amore said.
The council will hold a work session on the bill on Monday. It is scheduled to vote on the bill Feb. 7.