Weighing in on anti-bias bill

Measure would prohibit discrimination in Md. against gays, lesbians

March 10, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

A diverse group of witnesses that included Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sought yesterday to dispel "myths" about a bill they are promoting to outlaw discrimination in Maryland against gays and lesbians.

O'Malley joined other advocates of the bill - including legislators and a statewide Realtors' association - in asking the House Judiciary Committee to approve the measure and send it to the House of Delegates.

"Baltimore has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1988, and the sky has not fallen," O'Malley said. "I think it's just a basic issue of fairness."

But opponents argued that the legislation would amount to giving state sanction to homosexual conduct. The bill "promotes a homosexual agenda in state law, workplaces and housing laws," the Freedom of Religion Coalition, a Fort Washington-based conservative Christian group, said in a written statement.

Anti-discrimination laws covering gays and lesbians also are in force in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties. But no statewide statute exists.

Advocates of the bill said it is important to dispel false impressions about its potential consequences, among them that the bill would provide special privileges for gays and lesbians.

"We are not asking for special treatment with this bill, and it does not provide that," said David A. Williams, an Annapolis resident who submitted a written statement. "Each day, we awake, have breakfast, go to work and participate in community programs that help to improve the lives of people in this state."

Also backing the bill was the Maryland Association of Realtors, which said the bill would help guarantee fair housing.

The bill would add homosexuals to the list of groups protected by the state law banning discrimination in housing and employment. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made its passage one of his legislative priorities, providing as an example his brother Bruce, who died of AIDS in 1988 after a 19-year Air Force career during which he could not reveal his sexual orientation for fear of being discharged.

In an unusual move for a governor, Glendening testified personally in 1999 on behalf of a similar bill. The legislation was approved by the Judiciary Committee and the full House, but it died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Glendening is still pushing for the bill, but he did not appear at yesterday's hearing and does not plan to testify Wednesday when the Senate committee considers the matter. "He's told his story to the committee already," said Michael E. Morrill, the governor's spokesman.

This year, advocates are trying again to win the House's backing, but are focusing more of their attention on lobbying undecided senators.

"It's an education process," said Del. William H. Cole IV, a Baltimore Democrat and Judiciary Committee member who voted for the measure in 1999.

But another member of the committee said he didn't like the suggestion by some of the bill's advocates that the measure is akin to civil rights measures that benefited blacks.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said African-Americans have faced pervasive discrimination because of their skin color. He suggested that bias against gays and lesbians isn't comparable because sexual orientation is less visible.

"To lump the two is grossly unfair to me. I've been discriminated against my whole life," he said.

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