Gay rights bill set for vote

Supporters feel panel likely to send measure to full Senate for OK

Glendening backs it

April 08, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

After weeks of aggressive lobbying by the governor, a Senate committee is poised to vote today on a bill that would grant Maryland's gay men and lesbians the same legal protections offered to other minorities.

Supporters, led by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said they were optimistic that the bill would be approved in the Judicial Proceedings Committee and sent to the full Senate for a final vote.

However, opponents said they were still hopeful they could derail the legislation, in part by offering nearly two dozen amendments, any one of which could weaken it.

The bill, which has passed the House of Delegates, would for the first time offer legal recourse to homosexuals if they are victims of discrimination in the workplace or elsewhere.

Its backers say it would give long overdue protections to a group that can now legally be discriminated against.

Critics counter that the bill would foster mainstream acceptance of behavior they do not condone.

A vote to approve the measure today would place the divisive issue before the full Senate just as the General Assembly enters its final and most tumultuous days. If the legislation does win the six votes it needs to survive, it is likely to do so encumbered by at least some of the opposition amendments.

One of those, which was shared with committee members yesterday and is believed to have a chance of passage, would exempt anyone who has a religious objection to homosexuality from being subject to the bill.

If that amendment were included in a final version, workers could still be fired based on their sexual orientation, providing their employer had a religious basis for the decision.

In a recent interview, the governor said that provision would undermine the entire bill, and that he would not sign it with such language attached.

But yesterday, he declined to say what he would do if the Assembly passed the bill in that form and said his main concern was that it clear the committee.

Glendening has aggressively lobbied for this measure, including making an unprecedented personal appeal during a House committee hearing.

He has met regularly with senators who have been on the fence, and has repeatedly reminded them that he considers the bill a tribute to his brother Bruce, a Vietnam veteran who was gay and died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

`Personal crusade'

"I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who, until recently, was leaning against the measure. "It's not one of my favorite bills, but he has made this a very personal crusade."

Still, opponents of the bill said they believe the amendments, along with the 90-day session's built-in time constraints, could ultimately help them sink it.

They employed that strategy yesterday, as the Judicial Proceedings Committee was preparing to vote on the measure, by moving to delay the vote for 24 hours.

"There's no question that the clock, if managed properly, will be a key ally for those of us opposed to the bill," said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican. "We're going to use any tool we can to defeat this."

Last-days scramble

In the waning days of the General Assembly's 90-day session, any bill faces a scramble to get attention on the floor of the Senate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that if the sexual orientation measure does survive the committee vote, it will be stuck behind several other key issues.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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