Rights bill gains steam

Senator endorses amended measure to ban bias against gays

`Improves our chances'

Committee chairman holds swing vote on 11-member panel

March 16, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Supporters of a proposal to ban discrimination against gay men and lesbians in Maryland picked up a key vote yesterday when Sen. Leo E. Green said he will back the legislation.

"I would vote in favor of it with the amendments I've worked on," the Prince George's County Democrat said in an interview. "I can support it now."

Until yesterday, Green had been one of two undecided senators on the 11-member Judicial Proceedings Committee - the General Assembly panel seen as controlling the measure's fate.

But with Green's backing, supporters of the bill said they are hopeful it will receive the six committee votes needed to send it to the Senate floor. The committee chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, represents the potential sixth vote. He was ill yesterday and has not said if he will support the bill.

The legislation would add homosexuals to the list of groups protected by the state law banning discrimination in housing and employment. Green's amendments do not change the substance of the measure, but they specify what the bill would not do - including that it would not endorse same-sex marriages or homosexual activity.

If the Senate committee approves the legislation, passage by the full Assembly is considered likely.

"That's great news about Senator Green," said Nancy J. Meyer, co-chairwoman of Free State Justice, a group that advocates gay rights. "We think this improves our chances."

The measure's supporters say it is necessary to provide overdue protections to people who have no legal recourse against discrimination. But opponents say it would represent the state's endorsement of behavior they see as immoral. The chairman of the Frederick County Christian Coalition, for instance, has called the bill part of a "radical homosexual agenda."

Passage of the measure 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 of Delegates in 1999, but it died when the Senate committee failed to bring it to a vote.

A recent poll conducted for The Sun found that 60 percent of Marylanders support banning discrimination against homosexuals.

The amendments that Green seeks to add to the bill - with the support of the governor's office - specify what the bill is not intended to do, including:

Endorse same-sex marriages.

Require or prohibit companies from offering health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

Mandate public or private schools to promote any form of sexuality or sexual behavior.

Represent legislative approval or endorsement of any form of sexual behavior.

Supporters of the bill said they are not pleased with the amendments but can accept them to help secure passage of the anti-discrimination measure.

"All of those things are true about the bill," said Shannon Avery, chairwoman of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore's legislative and political action committee. "If having that expressed in the bill makes some people more comfortable supporting it, we're happy to accept that."

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 it.

Four were supporting it, and Green had been under pressure from supporters and opponents of the measure, who had seen him as the committee's crucial swing vote. His statements yesterday made him the fifth supporter.

Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, has indicated he does not feel strongly either way, and supporters of the measure are hopeful that Green's decision will sway Baker.

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