City Council kills gay couples bill

May 10, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Holly Selby | JoAnna Daemmrich and Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writers

After months of emotional debate that culminated in feverish lobbying by conservative religious leaders and gay rights activists, the City Council rejected a proposal last night that would have granted legal recognition to homosexual couples.

Strains of hymns from black ministers picketing outside City Hall filtered through the windows as the council voted 10-7 against the legislation to set up a municipal registry for domestic partnerships.

Under the bill, homosexuals and siblings living together could register as families and be guaranteed hospital visitation rights. Hospitals usually only allow close relatives to visit critically ill patients.

Proponents argued that the registry would provide a basis for employers to extend health benefits to live-in partners of their workers. The city decided five months ago to grant health benefits to the companions of municipal employees.

Domestic partnership "is an issue that's bigger than the bill," said Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat, who introduced the legislation at the request of gay rights advocates. "It would have benefited a large group of people in the city without hurting others."

Even though the bill's supporters emphasized that it granted only hospital visitation rights, many church groups said it sanctioned alternative living arrangements and encouraged immorality.

Baltimore is one of a growing number of U.S. cities coming to terms with recognizing homosexual unions. New York, San Francisco and Seattle already provide health benefits or domestic registries or both. In Austin, Texas, however, voters Saturday repealed a policy that provided insurance benefits to the companions of city employees.

"We feel like the bill was an infringement on the family," said the Rev. Lawrence Washington, president of the interfaith Baltimore Coalition for Church Rights, which fought the proposal. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore also has expressed concern over "domestic partnerships, gay marriages and other policies which promote an equivalence between legal marriage and homosexual lifestyles."

Members of the Baltimore Justice Campaign, a gay rights group, rallied with equal force in support of the legislation. They vowed yesterday to press ahead with some bill to allow hospital visitation -- and to make gay rights more prominent in next year's council election.

"We'll definitely use our political capital and power in Baltimore City," said Shannon Avery, co-chairwoman of the campaign. "It is disappointing when decisions are made at City Hall based on the religious beliefs of a few, because this was the kind of bill that solves real problems for real families and hurts absolutely no one."

The original bill would have allowed any two people who live together to register as domestic partners. It was endorsed by a mayoral task force last fall and widely supported by gay advocates, but drew vehement opposition from some black ministers.

In late April, as the proposal appeared headed for defeat, three council members tried to allay the ministers' fears by revising the plan to exclude heterosexual couples, who could be legally married, from the registry. Council President Mary Pat Clarke said before the vote she hoped the compromise would salvage the hospital visitation rights.

However, the ministers and their supporters continued to express outrage at the measure.

Moments before the council convened yesterday, proponents and opponents faced off a mere foot apart in picket lines outside City Hall.

Council members said they were flooded with alls on the issue. Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat who initially sponsored the bill but voted against it, said the city does not have the authority to mandate hospital visitation.

"This is a very, very difficult issue for me," said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., a 1st District Democrat, before casting an opposing vote.

Proponents of the bill expressed disappointment, saying it would have helped many nontraditional households. Some called the defeat a setback for gay rights in Baltimore, and many were angered that Ms. Dixon and Councilman Melvin L. Stukes dropped their support after pressure from the black ministers.

"This means that the misunderstanding and prejudice continues," said Christine Muldowney, a social worker who became involved in the effort in March when the bill failed to muster enough votes in a key test in the council.

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