Rights bills under scrutiny

Senators undecided on measures extending protection to gays

February 26, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Despite an intense, personal lobbying effort by the governor, several senators predicted yesterday that his two gay rights bills will require substantial changes if they are to leave committee.

Interviews with several undecided senators indicated the bills lack the support they need to pass.

Those members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee -- Sens. Philip C. Jimeno, Clarence M. Mitchell IV and Norman R. Stone Jr. -- said their concerns were heightened during hours of debate yesterday at a packed hearing on the two bills.

The bills would add sexual orientation as a category in existing anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws.

"When the governor called me, I told him I'd take a very close look at this," Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said of the anti-discrimination measure. "But I think it needs so much work, that to put this into law would, at this point, be a major leap."

Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat, agreed, saying the bills were "in trouble."

His concerns mirrored those of several committee members, who said it would be difficult for employers to discern when it would be legal for them to discipline a worker. A male who went to work in a dress, for example, would be protected under the current bill.

"It's far too murky," Jimeno said. "How will an employer know if he's acting legally against inappropriate behavior or violating the worker's rights?"

Some of the fence-sitters on the committee appeared strained under the competing pressures: a bill they see as flawed, personal appeals from the governor, and a desire to see Maryland protect gays and lesbians from discrimination and violence.

Scores of witnesses on both sides of an inflammatory debate pleaded with the senators to support their views.

Some turned to religion to justify their stand, while others, like Owings Mills resident Kit McDaniels, offered wrenching personal stories. McDaniels told of her gay son's brush with suicide, quoting from his journal, "I hate the secrets and the pain. I want to tell but I'm afraid. I feel I can't hang on much longer. Now I just want to let go."

Dirk Selland, who said he was driven from a six-year career in the Navy because he is gay, showed a sign he found on the door of his submarine squadron office. It read: "Some people are alive simply because it's against the law to kill them."

Representatives from Bell Atlantic and Johns Hopkins Hospital told senators that Maryland's lack of protection for homosexuals is driving away talented workers.

Herbert D. Valentine, a Presbyterian minister from Baltimore, told the committee he believed the church has "fallen far short in its dealings with homosexuals."

After several hours of testimony from supporters, opponents rose to offer their views.

Among them was Dick Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, who said he didn't want his church's rejection of the bills to be seen as a vote for intolerance.

Dowling suggested the governor's appeals, which have invoked his brother's struggle with homosexuality and death from AIDS, should be directed to the public.

"We commend Governor Glendening for using the bully pulpit of his office, and we know his emotions are earnest and deeply felt," Dowling said. "But he should turn that pulpit around and direct it at the public, not at the legislature."

Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, told the committee that such a law would put a state stamp on behavior that many find objectionable.

John Toner, a real estate agent from Columbia, said the bill "scares the bejeebers out of me."

"You're not regulating discrimination based on what people are, but on something impossible to discern about how someone may be behaving in private," he said. "You're going to require me, as a businessman, to start trying to figure out what everyone I deal with does in their bedroom."

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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