House OKs gay rights legislation

It would extend state's anti-bias law to homosexuals

Identical bill passed Senate

Amendments help six delegates change votes from 1999

March 31, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

A bill to extend Maryland's anti-bias law to include gays and lesbians was approved by the House of Delegates yesterday with the unexpected help of six members -- including the chamber's Republican leader, a pastor and an insurance salesman -- who opposed a similar measure in 1999 and took different paths toward supporting it this time.

The House voted 88-50 to concur with the Senate in approving the gay rights bill, handing Gov. Parris N. Glendening a legislative victory he has been seeking for two years. When he signs the legislation, it will make Maryland the 12th state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Although the House had been expected to back the legislation, the final vote produced a surprise: six delegates, three of them Republicans, voted for a bill that is substantially the same as the bill they rejected in 1999.

Some of the six said they took tortured paths to making their decision. Although the bill is partly symbolic -- Baltimore City and Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties have similar anti-discrimination laws that already cover much of the state -- the issues raised are clearly politically potent.

"It's not going to help me politically, that's for sure," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County, the House Republican leader.

Like most Republicans, Kittleman and House GOP whip Robert L. Flanagan, also from Howard County, voted against the 1999 bill, in part because they feared it could have unintended consequences. Their concerns were addressed by an amendment and other language that specified what the bill would not do -- including that it would not endorse same-sex marriage or homosexual activity.

Flanagan also had a personal consideration: He has a younger brother who is gay. Flanagan said he has become convinced that homosexuality is not a choice.

"The message from my own family experience is that my brother didn't choose to be a homosexual any more than I choose to be heterosexual," he said after the vote. "It's a very important issue to me, and I was aware my vote against it in 1999 might be misconstrued as my having less than full tolerance for somebody who is gay. I am very close to my brother."

In 1999, the House approved the gay rights measure, 80-56. But the bill died because the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee declined to vote on it.

Glendening has been lobbying for it almost ever since. The governor has invoked the memory of his brother Bruce, who was gay. He died of AIDS in 1988 after a 19-year Air Force career in which he could not disclose his sexual orientation for fear of being discharged.

Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman, said the governor "is especially grateful to the legislature for taking a fair look at the real issues raised by this legislation and concluding that Maryland's tradition of justice and inclusion should carry on."

The others who had previously voted against the bill and backed it yesterday were Democrat Kerry A. Hill, a Prince George's County minister; James E. Rzepkowski, an Anne Arundel Republican and insurance salesman; Democrat Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County lawyer; and Democrat James E. Malone Jr., a Fire Department lieutenant from Baltimore County.

Like Flanagan and Kittleman, several in that group said they had wanted to vote for it before, but thought it was overly broad. Opponents argued it could lead to a flood of litigation from gays and lesbians making allegations of bias. Such lawsuits, some of the lawmakers feared, could be damaging to small businesses.

"It's always been very painful to do that [vote against it] because I don't believe in discrimination of any kind," Dewberry said. "The amendments that were added have taken away my concerns."

The amendments state that the measure may not be construed as authorizing same-sex marriage, endorsing any type of sexual behavior, or mandating that schools promote homosexuality in their curriculums.

Rzepkowski said he was persuaded to back the measure by the image of gays or lesbians who could be evicted from their home because of their sexual orientation. A Glendening-created panel spent several months hearing stories of bias against gays and lesbians -- people who said, for example, that they had been taunted, denied housing or fired from their jobs.

"They could do everything right -- pay their rent on time, not throw wild parties -- and it doesn't make sense that a renter could still be thrown out of their home," Rzepkowski said.

The legislation will receive final approval when the House or Senate passes the other's bill. That is considered a formality because the language in both bills is identical.

The House of Delegates voted 88-50 yesterday to approve the governor's gay rights bills. Here's how members voted:

Voting yes

Rushern L. Baker III, D-Prince George's

Wheeler R. Baker, D-Queen Anne's

Charles Barkley, D-Montgomery

Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery

Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George's

Leon G. Billings, D-Montgomery

Elizabeth M. Bobo, D-Howard

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