Panel hears from both sides on bill to ban anti-gay bias

Backers foresee help for economy

foes say it's immoral

March 15, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Business leaders and local elected officials told a state Senate committee yesterday that banning discrimination against gays and lesbians would be a strong step to promote economic development in Maryland.

Critics said approving such legislation would be morally wrong and represent the first step toward the state giving its blessing to same-sex marriages.

The two sides made their case yesterday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which controls the proposals' fate and might vote on the measure as early as today.

The committee could kill the bill. If it approves the legislation, passage by the full General Assembly is considered likely. The bill would add homosexuals to the list of groups protected by the state law banning discrimination in housing and employment.

Sen. Leo E. Green, considered a key swing vote on the committee, said he is considering supporting the bill if he and the governor's office can agree to some amendments.

"It was a good hearing, more positive than in the past," said Green, a Prince George's Democrat. "I'm still working on some amendments with the governor. Let's see if we can get them worked out by the time we vote."

He said the amendments would aim to clarify what the bill doesn't do, including that it is not intended to sanction same-sex marriages nor to promote extending domestic partner benefits to gays and lesbians.

Passage of the bill is one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative priorities. The governor frequently defends the legislation by talking about his brother Bruce, who died of AIDS after a 19-year Air Force career during which he could not reveal his sexual orientation for fear of being discharged.

Similar legislation passed the House Judiciary Committee and the full House in 1999, but it died when the Senate committee failed to bring it to a vote.

This year, five of the Senate committee's 11 members - the four Republicans and Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat - have indicated that they oppose the measure. Four others are supporting it, leaving Green and the chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, as the key votes.

"I'll tell you the same thing I told the governor, that I never tell anybody how I'm going to vote," said Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, who missed yesterday's hearing because he wasn't feeling well. "I just want to do the right thing."

Supporters and opponents suggest that if Green provides the fifth vote of support, Baker is likely to join him, which would permit the bill to make it to the Senate floor, where it is believed to have enough support to pass.

Green has been heavily lobbied for weeks by both sides, and yesterday's hearing was no exception. Green got the chance to meet one vocal opponent who has been inundating his office with e-mails.

"Keep those e-mails coming," Green told 78-year-old Bob Tansey, chairman of the Frederick County Christian Coalition. "My staff enjoys them."

"Don't worry, I will," replied Tansey, who moments earlier had called the bill part of a "radical homosexual agenda" supported by "a bunch of mealy-mouthed, extra-compassionate people."

Supporters of the bill included such politicians as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, as well as a variety of religious and business leaders.

O'Malley and Duncan testified that similar gay rights laws are working well in their jurisdictions. Anti-discrimination laws covering gays and lesbians are in force in Baltimore and in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties - covering almost half of Maryland's population - but no statewide statute exists.

"We believe this condition [of not having a law] could stymie investment in our state and impede business growth," said Richard Patrick, who represented the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce.

Notable for its absence was the Maryland Catholic Conference. Though the group has opposed the legislation in the past, it did not offer oral or written testimony against the bill. But opponents included many smaller religious groups and others who said the measure would hurt family values.

"If God does not want to condone homosexuality, I don't think Maryland should, either," said Victoria Christian, 28.

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