Allowing freedom to live and let live

January 17, 2001|By Geoffrey L. Greif

WITH THE RECENT news about Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano's reported remarks against gays, sexual orientation discrimination is again in the news.

Legally protecting against discrimination is as simple as inserting the words "sexual orientation" into a law that already protects other groups. Article 49B of the current Maryland anti-discrimination law prohibits bias on the basis of race, religion, creed, sex, color, age, marital status, national origin and disability. Noteworthy exemptions to Article 49B include employers with fewer than 15 employees, religious organizations and homeowners who rent rooms (or a few rental units) in a building where the owner resides.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued an executive order in the fall establishing the Special Commission to Study Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Maryland.

The 23-member panel was charged with examining discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and developing recommendations to address discrimination. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting this type of behavior. Maryland does not have a law even though four jurisdictions, accounting for half the state's population, have anti-discrimination laws. The four are Baltimore City and Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

There should be a statewide law against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Attempts to pass an anti-discrimination bill adding "sexual orientation" to 49B have met with partial success. The House of Delegates passed such a bill in 1999. but it died in a Senate committee. No significant legislative action was taken last year.

The commission held five statewide public hearings in November and December at which 113 people testified in person or in writing, 87 of whom favored legislation.

Marylanders experienced job loss, economic hardship, loss of self-esteem, threats, fear of harm and mental and physical stress because of discrimination. A Salisbury man was harassed on the job by fellow employees who referred to him as "queer," "homo" and "fag." A lawyer told about two clients who were denied a summer rental property in Ocean City because they were gay.

A Baltimore man was refused service at a restaurant he had frequented for many years when the owner blocked his entrance and said the man was "contagious." A Port Republic car saleswoman reported that her employer discouraged the sales force from selling cars to gays and lesbians.

Opponents of potential legislation focused primarily on the morality of homosexual behavior. They argued that amending the law would force people to choose between following their religious beliefs and complying with the law. For example, a representative from the Wilmington diocese testified that homosexuality is not accepted as a legitimate lifestyle in the teaching of the Catholic Church and social tradition.

Opponents also argued that special rights should not be bestowed on gays and lesbians, that such legislation would open a floodgate of litigation that would have a deleterious effect on business and passage of a state law would interfere with local autonomy. A woman in Salisbury said citizens in each county should decide for themselves whether to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.

The commission concluded that sexual orientation discrimination is a problem for citizens of Maryland. While it recognizes that certain individuals and religious organizations oppose amending the law, it heard testimony from other religious organizations that favor its passage. Religious organizations would remain exempt from having to employ homosexuals.

The commission found no evidence supporting an increase of litigation in Maryland jurisdictions or states where such protection exists. For example, Johns Hopkins Hospital, which has an anti-discrimination policy, has not received any sexual orientation complaints.

Finally, the commission believes it is unfair for people who live in one county to be protected while Marylanders in another county are not. It recommended in its Dec. 15 report that legislation be re-introduced to amend Article 49B to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.

The commission believes that granting individuals, businesses and organizations a continued entitlement to engage in discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation flies in the face of the evolving direction of American life.

Perhaps people like Mr. Graziano will be more judicious in their comments as well.

Geoffrey L. Greif, associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, chairs the special commission.

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