Gay rights backers protest at cathedral They oppose Catholic stand on anti-bias bill

4 arrested

March 29, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

After literally eating fire and mocking the Crucifixion, four gay rights activists were arrested yesterday for trying to push their way through a line of police into the Baltimore cathedral where Cardinal William H. Keeler was conducting Good Friday services.

The members of the Lesbian Avengers gay rights group said they were protesting the Maryland Catholic Conference's lobbying last week to defeat a state bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate against gays in employment and housing.

But supporters of the anti-discrimination bill said they were disturbed by the gay rights activists' offensive protest on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar.

"I believe in their cause," said Sheryl Schmidt, a 39-year-old artist and Roman Catholic who attended Friday's service at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street. "But I do not think it's right for them to try to disrupt a solemn holy day at our church."

By a vote of 11-10, the state House Judiciary Committee on March 21 killed the so-called "Gay and Lesbian Anti-Discrimination Bill" after the Maryland Catholic Conference spoke out against it.

It was the fifth consecutive year that state lawmakers did not approve the anti-discrimination measure.

The Maryland Catholic Conference has been lobbying against the bill in part because the conference's members fear it would require the church to pay for the health insurance of the unmarried "domestic partners" of church employees, said Bill Blaul, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The church does not believe that people should live together as sexually active "domestic partners" unless they are a married man and woman, said Blaul.

And although the proposed bill did not specifically mention "domestic partners" or health insurance, Catholic officials worried that approval of the law would put the state on the "slippery slope" toward trying to dictate the church's moral code, Blaul said.

"The church's position is that homosexuals should not be discriminated against," said Blaul. "But we also have a deeply held religious belief that unmarried people should not be living together and having sex. And the state should not be trying to enforce its moral code on top of our religious beliefs."

That argument sounded hypocritical to LeAnn Foster, a 25-year-old free-lance journalist who was charged with disorderly conduct while helping to lead the protest at the cathedral yesterday.

"When they lobby for discrimination, I think people should know they are going against the principles of the church," Foster said. "The Vatican has said that discrimination in any form is intolerable."

As hundreds of worshipers filed into the cathedral, eight gay rights activists wearing white T-shirts with pictures of bombs protested in front of the church with bullhorns and signs reading "Pray for Justice." One protester draped herself over a cross like Jesus.

The protesters dipped torches into a jar of kerosene, lighted them and then snuffed out the flames in their mouths. Then, chanting "two, four, six, eight, Catholic bishops love to hate!" they marched up to a line of eight police officers blocking the front of the church.

Baltimore Police Maj. Robert Novak told the protesters they were welcome in the church, but that they had to leave their bullhorn and signs outside. One of the protesters, however, pushed forward up the steps with her sign.

Police handcuffed her and three other activists. Charged with disorderly conduct were Foster; Cheryl Cort, 31, a federal environmental worker from Washington; Kim Donahue, 30, a XTC community organizer from Baltimore; and Winnie McCray, 24, of Baltimore.

One of the sponsors of the anti-discrimination measure, Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, said she was appalled to hear that supporters of her bill would try to disrupt a religious service.

"This is just unacceptable conduct," said Bobo, on hearing of the protest. "And I think it just makes it so much harder for us to get this legislation passed."

Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat and another sponsor, said: "Actions like this tend to be more helpful to opponents of the legislation than to proponents."

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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