Legislation that would add gays and lesbians to the ranks of groups protected from discrimination in Maryland cleared a major hurdle last night, narrowly gaining the approval of a House committee in Annapolis.
The decision casts aside six years of defeat in the House Judiciary Committee, marking a major victory for gay rights advocates. The 12-8 vote also stands as an accomplishment for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has been waging an aggressive campaign for the bill.
"I applaud the members of the House Judiciary Committee who courageously said today that discrimination has no place in Maryland," Glendening said in a statement released after the vote.
The legislation would amend state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, age and gender to include sexual orientation.
The measure would offer legal redress for homosexuals who face discrimination in an array of circumstances, including those who are denied jobs or told they can't rent an apartment because of their sexual orientation.
Tempering advocates' excitement about yesterday's vote was knowledge of the rocky terrain ahead. The measure faces an uncertain future in the full House of Delegates, though key members have expressed their support.
If it is to become law, it must also clear what is viewed as the General Assembly's most conservative panel, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, as well as the full Senate.
But the legions of gays and lesbians who have been championing the bill for nearly a decade said they were buoyed by last night's vote.
"I'm thrilled," said Elizabeth A. Seaton, executive director of the Free State Justice Campaign, which has lobbied for the legislation for nearly a decade.
"After eight long years, this bill is finally headed to the House floor."
The Judiciary Committee voted to amend the bill to narrow the definition of who is protected. The language now says the bill covers gays, lesbians and bisexuals, but does not specifically mention those who classify themselves as trans-gender or transsexual.
Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he was deeply disturbed by a change that was, in his view, inconsistent with the spirit of the proposed legislation.
"Why would we pass this bill, and then turn around and essentially say it's OK to discriminate against transsexuals?" he asked the members.
But other committee members suggested those groups would still be covered by the law. Privately, some said the change could help make the bill more acceptable to the Senate.
Among the factors that helped push the bill through this stage was the presence this year of 10 new delegates on the Judiciary Committee.
Another was the aggressive involvement of the governor. Glendening entered the fray this year by offering a moving personal account of his brother's struggles during 19 years as a closeted, gay Air Force sergeant, and his painful death from AIDS several years ago.
Glendening has personally lobbied many legislators on the issue, and he testified before the Judiciary Committee in support of his bill, the first time he has made such an appearance before a legislative panel since he took office in 1995.
Along with Glendening's personal appeal, representatives of some major Maryland employers testified in earlier hearings that Maryland's lack of protection for homosexuals is driving away talented workers.
But other business owners were opposed, telling legislators they feared that the change would forbid them from firing someone for coming to work in a dress.
Over the course of debate last night, delegates struggled with scenarios of what might qualify as discrimination and what would not.
"I just would suggest that with all these questions we have about the bill, we are moving a little fast," said an exasperated Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Baltimore County Republican.
But ultimately, Del. Kenneth C. Montague, Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, prevailed on the members to accept that they could not predict all the possibilities.
Pub Date: 3/20/99