Senate OKs gay rights bill, 32-14

Assembly measure is a top priority in session for governor

4-hour filibuster broken

Foes reject status for `lifestyle class'

House passage likely

March 28, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Senate gave a strong stamp of approval yesterday to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, just hours after it broke an overnight Republican filibuster against the measure.

"It will help protect more of our citizens, and, hopefully, this change in the law will over time make greater changes in people's hearts and in their minds," said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. "I think it's a good day for the state of Maryland."

The 32-14 Senate vote sends the measure to the House of Delegates, where it is expected to pass easily. The House approved a similar bill two years ago, and the House Judiciary Committee may vote on the version approved by the Senate as soon as this afternoon.

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

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.

"This bill is not about equal rights or anti-discrimination," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican who led the four-hour filibuster that lasted until 2:30 a.m. yesterday. "It's about special rights for a lifestyle class."

The Senate vote brings Glendening one significant step closer to a major legislative victory.

This year, the governor made approval of the measure one of his top priorities, and he frequently speaks of 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.

"It should be quite clear that here in Maryland, we do not discriminate against anyone for any reason anywhere in the state," Glendening said yesterday.

`Do this for right reasons'

The governor spent weeks trying to persuade reluctant senators to support the proposal, saying he held many conversations but shied away from using such influential tools as government construction projects and redistricting.

"I wanted people to do this for the right reasons," Glendening said. "This has been a very important vote."

If the bill is approved by the House, it would cap off almost a decade of struggle by gay rights activists and further solidify Maryland's status as one of the nation's most socially liberal states.

"I think it was extremely pleasantly surprising that as many senators supported it as they did," said Nancy J. Meyer, co-chairwoman of Free State Justice, a group that advocates gay rights. "It demonstrates that the time is right for this bill."

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

"I'm always surprised at how long it took us," said Del. Sheila E. Hixon, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "Finally, we feel we're enlightened enough."

Statutes in 4 jurisdictions

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 states and Washington, D.C., have such laws.

Over the past week, opponents of the bill tried to tie it up through endless debate in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the full Senate. They charge that the discrimination measure is the first step toward state approval of same-sex marriages and health benefits for domestic partners.

"We're going to be fighting for our very lives philosophically, religiously, spiritually, 15, 20, 25 years from now," warned Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Frederick County Republican.

Mooney and Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, began the Senate filibuster about 10:25 p.m. Monday. Harris spent more than two hours reading aloud from New Jersey appellate court decisions involving gays and the Boy Scouts, until two-thirds of the 47 senators voted to limit debate.

The filibuster was part of an effort by Mooney and other opponents to add an amendment exempting people from the anti-discrimination measure if they have a "conscientious objection based on a bona fide religious belief."

"In this body's attempt to be tolerant, we've condoned acts of intolerance against people of faith," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. "We trampled the rights of people of religious faith by denying them the right to have their religious views and values protected when we pass this piece of legislation."

But supporters of the bill charged that Mooney's amendment would cripple the bill, and the effort failed, 26-19. The measure does include an exemption for religious organizations from the anti-discrimination employment statute.

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