Defeat near for gay rights

Delays, amendments in Senate committee dim bill's prospects

April 09, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Prospects for passage of the governor's gay rights bill all but vanished yesterday as a Maryland Senate committee voted to add amendments gutting the measure.

The legislation, designed to prohibit discrimination against Maryland's gay men and lesbians, won approval in the House of Delegates but ran into serious trouble in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Committee members attached four weakening amendments to the bill yesterday, including one that advocates say would prevent it from being an effective tool against discrimination.

The provision, which has met fierce resistance from the governor, says people can legally discriminate against gays if they have a religious objection to homosexuality.

Further dimming the bill's chances of passing this year was the committee's failure to complete its work on the measure, delaying for at least one more day any vote by the full Senate.

With the 90-day session coming to a close Monday night, an ongoing filibuster in the Senate and stacks of other legislation awaiting resolution, it would take a series of improbable political turns for a gay rights bill acceptable to its sponsors to win final approval.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who waged a vigorous lobbying effort on behalf of the bill, called yesterday's developments "frustrating."

"It seems like it should be so simple," he said. "Either you're for ending discrimination or you're against it."

But in this deeply emotional debate, in which constituents on both sides have besieged legislators with phone calls, nothing has been simple.

"This may be the toughest bill I've had to deal with," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat who has been caught between his loyalties to the governor and overwhelming opposition from residents in his district.

As originally drafted, the legislation would amend state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, age and gender to include sexual orientation.

Supporters have called it a desperately needed civil rights law that would give homosexuals some legal recourse if they are wrongly denied jobs, barred from an apartment complex or subjected to other forms of discrimination. They have no recourse under current state law.

Critics have argued that the bill would create special rights for a group that engages in conduct they find morally objectionable.

The House of Delegates approved the legislation last month, and there appears to be substantial support for it on the Senate floor. But opponents have waged a carefully crafted campaign to stall the bill in the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is widely viewed as the Senate's most conservative.

As members were poised for a vote Tuesday, Republicans reached outside their party to piece together the six votes they needed to stall for 24 hours. When the committee reconvened yesterday afternoon, they gathered support to place the bill at the end of a lengthy voting list -- knowing the committee would have to adjourn when the Senate went back into session at 4: 30 p.m.

Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who promised Glendening he would support the bill, chided committee members, but said the governor shares blame for the late date of the vote.

He said Glendening asked him to hold the bill for weeks, until the governor's lobbyists could round up support to pass it. By waiting so long, Baker said Glendening exposed the bill to delay tactics.

But with time running out in the committee room yesterday, Baker put his foot down. "There's going to be no more game playing," he said.

Members then began dutifully debating amendments. One, offered by Baltimore County Democrat Norman R. Stone, proposed removing bisexuals from the group protected by the bill.

"What we're talking about is homosexuals and heterosexuals," he said. "When we get to bisexuals, I'm just puzzled. I didn't lead a sheltered life, I just don't understand why this needs to be in here."

That motion passed, and was quickly followed by one that said the bill would not allow gay marriages or condone sodomy.

Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Democrat from Montgomery County, which has a local gay rights law, shook her head in dismay.

"You know, we have this kind of protection in Montgomery County and all hell has not broken loose," she said.

"It's going to break loose," replied Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican.

Perhaps the strongest move against the bill came next, when Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat, offered the language to exempt anyone who had a religious objection to homosexuality.

Supporters of that proposal include Richard J. Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, who said the gay rights legislation offers one group protections that trample on another group's religious rights.

"People have a free right to abide by the beliefs of their faith," Dowling said. "There's no reason this bill shouldn't reflect that."

After the fourth amendment was added to the bill, the hallway bells in the Senate office building began to ring, indicating it was time for members to return to the Senate floor. Opponents of the bill smiled.

"We'll have to hold off `till tomorrow," Ferguson said. "Too bad."

As senators crossed the plaza and climbed the State House steps, the governor's team of lobbyists was already trying to plot a strategy to bring new life to the bill. But in a brief interview as he left his office, Glendening's optimism was clearly waning.

"This bill has gone further than it ever has before," he said. "And it took a lot of courage from a lot of people to get it this far."

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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