OK of gay-rights legislation expected from Senate panel

Amendments made to protection bill

March 20, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

A state Senate committee appears poised to approve Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in Maryland.

The Judicial Proceedings Committee spent more than two hours debating the measure yesterday, rejecting repeated efforts to weaken the bill before running out of time last night.

Based on those votes, both supporters and opponents of the legislation said they expect the panel to approve it, 6-5.

"We will show that Maryland is a progressive state," said Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat who supports the bill. "All people should live with dignity."

But Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican who opposes the bill, said he does not believe homosexuals should be protected by state law. "I think we're doing the wrong thing," Haines said.

The legislation would add gays and lesbians to the groups protected by state law banning discrimination in housing and employment.

Winning approval from the Senate committee has been seen as the bill's biggest obstacle. Advocates have said they expect the full Senate to pass it, but were not sure whether two amendments added yesterday would change those prospects.

One makes clear the measure does not apply to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a provision already guaranteed by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The other would permit employers being sued for discrimination to ask other employees about their sexual orientation in preparing their defense.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, the committee chairman, said the panel will take up the bill again this afternoon. He also said he will ask his staff to research committee rules to find ways to cut off the steady stream of amendments and debate from the panel's Republicans.

Baker is the only member of the committee who has not said how he intends to vote. He appeared to indicate his support for the measure by voting against almost all of the Republican amendments.

"This bill is very limited," Baker said. "It only applies to employers over 15 and residential units over five. I don't think anybody is going to pay attention to this bill except you [reporters]."

The measure earned broad support at a hearing last week from political, religious and business leaders across the state, who said it is necessary to provide overdue protections to people who have no legal recourse against discrimination.

But opponents of the bill say it would represent the state's endorsement of behavior they see as immoral.

"What's next?" asked Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican who predicted approval of the bill would lead to demands for a law guaranteeing health benefits for domestic partners.

During yesterday's committee voting session, Mooney offered a series of amendments to the bill, including efforts to prohibit public schools from teaching anything about homosexuality and to ban public schools from employing "openly gay" teachers.

Mooney also sought to have the bill apply only to companies with 50 or more employees - up from the bill's provision of 15 or more employees - and sought to change the title of the bill from the "Antidiscrimination Act of 2001" to "Special Legal Rights for Transgendered, Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian People in Maryland."

The committee voted 6-5 to defeat all but two of Mooney's amendments.

Gay-rights activists said they were opposed to the amendment allowing sued employers to ask their workers about their sexual orientation. It was not immediately clear whether they would seek to persuade senators to remove it from the bill.

To secure the vote of Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat, the committee approved a four-part amendment that specified what the bill would not do - including that it would not endorse same-sex marriages or homosexual activity.

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