Md. panel approves gay rights measure

Senate committee was major hurdle for Glendening proposal

March 21, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in Maryland cleared its biggest hurdle yesterday, winning narrow approval from the conservative Senate committee that blocked its passage two years ago.

"I think this is a tremendous victory for justice and fairness and inclusion in Maryland," Glendening said at a news conference after the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee vote. "It has taken far too long for us to get to this point."

But opponents of the bill predicted it would lead to a flood of litigation from gays and lesbians making allegations of bias. "The bill is fraught with a lot of loopholes that really open us up to a Pandora's box," said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican.

"We've got a bill on our hands that will ensnare a lot of people. ... They'll be accused of being homophobes or hatemongers just because of religious beliefs," Ferguson 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 measure's primary challenge. Advocates have said they expect the full Senate to pass it, and the House of Delegates approved similar legislation in 1999 - the year the measure died when the Senate committee failed to bring it to a vote.

"We look forward to the bill going on to the Senate floor and to the House, where we fully expect to win approval," said Shannon Avery, chairwoman of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore's legislative and political action committee.

Supporters of the bill say it is necessary to provide overdue protections to people who have no legal recourse against discrimination.

Opponents say the state shouldn't provide legal protection to homosexuals and describe the measure as government endorsement of behavior they see as immoral.

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

Four Maryland jurisdictions - Baltimore City and Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties - have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but there is no statewide statute. Eleven other states and Washington, D.C., have such laws.

The anti-discrimination measure is one of Glendening's legislative priorities this year, and he frequently defends it 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.

"I know the media will write a lot about how this is a political victory," Glendening said. "In fact, this is a victory for all people. This is a human victory."

Glendening proudly pointed to the bill as the third of three civil rights measures that appear on their way to passage this year. The others are a bill to ban racial profiling by law enforcement officers and a proposal to set one of the nation's most ambitious minority-contracting goals.

"We have taken extraordinary steps in one session to make this a fairer and more just and more inclusive society," the governor said.

Yesterday's 6-5 vote ended more than three hours of debate by the Senate committee since Thursday.

The panel's Republicans had hoped to keep talking about the bill until it was too late for the full Senate to have time to act - a tactic they used successfully in killing the bill in 1999. But Baltimore Democratic Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV and the committee's chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, used parliamentary procedure to end the quasi-filibuster.

Opponents of the legislation had spent more than two hours Monday proposing amendments intended to cripple the bill - by exempting Carroll County, banning public schools from employing "openly gay" teachers, requiring that the bill only apply to "non-practicing" homosexuals.

All but two of the Republican amendments were defeated by the same 6-5 vote. One would permit employers being sued for discrimination to ask other employees about their sexual orientation in preparing their defense. The governor dismissed the two amendments as inconsequential.

The six senators who voted for the bill are Baker, Mitchell and four other Democrats: Leo E. Green of Prince George's County, Jennie M. Forehand of Montgomery County, and Ralph M. Hughes and Perry Sfikas of Baltimore.

The five senators who voted against it were the committee's four Republicans - Ferguson, Mooney, Richard F. Colburn of Dorchester County and Larry E. Haines of Carroll County- and one Democrat, Philip C. Jimeno of Anne Arundel County.

To secure Green's vote, the committee added a four-part amendment that specified what the bill would not do - including that it would not endorse same-sex marriage or homosexual activity.

While Green's vote had been seen as critical, yesterday's favorable action also can be traced back to a committee membership change made by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller replaced Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, on the Judicial Proceedings Committee with the more socially liberal Sfikas.

The senators who voted against the bill vowed to continue to wage their fight on the Senate floor later this week, where it may be more difficult to cut off the debate. "I have a lot of amendments to offer," Mooney said.

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