Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris Glendening, suggested I read the law.
He's talking about Maryland's gay rights law, Senate Bill 205, recently passed but delayed as a result of a referendum effort by TakeBackMaryland.org. Morrill was responding to a question I had posed for the governor in light of Glendening's speech of a week ago. You may recall the speech. It's the one in which Glendening called those opposed to the law "mean-spirited" folks "attempt[ing] to force the state to condone discrimination, prejudice and bigotry." He stopped just short of accusing Tres Kerns and the TakeBackMaryland.org folks of breaking out the crosses for a Ku Klux Klan rally.
So the questions put to Glendening were: Does he categorize people who have strong religious objections to homosexuality as bigots? Can religious folks discriminate against gays and not necessarily be bigots?
"That makes a mockery of religions I know," Morrill countered. "I know most religions make a distinction between the sin and the sinners. This legislation doesn't endorse any particular lifestyle. It's a mischaracterization based on either ignorance or out-and-out bigotry."
Ah, yes, that handy b-word again, the one gay rights activists and their allies use to intimidate their adversaries into silence. But there are some folks who claim that courts and government officials have used gay rights laws against religious groups. One of them is Jordan Lorence of the J.D. Northstar Legal Center in Fairfax, Va., who recently wrote an article giving the examples listed below.
First, in 1990, the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission hit the Catholic Archdiocese of the Twin Cities with a $25,000 fine. The archdiocese had given the boot to a gay Catholic group that rented space in the church-owned Newman Center on the University of Minnesota campus. The Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with the church.
Second, in 1987, a District of Columbia court ruled that Georgetown University, the renowned Catholic institution of higher learning, had to allow a gay group to meet on campus in compliance with D.C.'s gay rights ordinance.
Third, in 1979, officials in St. Paul, Minn., sued the Rev. John Buchanan for not hiring a gay teacher at his parish's parochial school. The courts ruled in Buchanan's favor.
Fourth, in 1980 an organist fired from his job as a Presbyterian church organist in San Francisco because he was gay sued under the city's gay rights laws. A court sided with the church.
Those are four cases from the past where religious freedom has run smack-dab up against gay rights. Morrill made it clear that Maryland's law doesn't apply to religious organizations - it sounds like at least some legislators must have heard of these prior cases - and then answered a second question put to the governor: Is the suppression of homophobia more important to Glendening than religious freedom?
"The governor considers homophobia misguided," Morrill said. "The legislation addresses actions, not beliefs. You may not convert your personal beliefs into actions."
But that's precisely what Buchanan and the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul did. Would Glendening have us believe the Catholic Church - or your average synagogue, mosque or Protestant church - is overrun with bigots? And just why would anyone have personal beliefs and not act on them?
Morrill did not clarify, but I took his suggestion and read the law. It reads as he says it does, that discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment based on sexual orientation is prohibited. There's a list of no-nos for business owners, landlords and employers. Discrimination also is not permitted based on race, creed, sex, age, color, national origin, disability and marital status.
Just how long do we want this list to become? In addition to challenging whether sexual orientation should be added, some critics might say marital status, at least in the part of the bill related to public accommodations, shouldn't be on the list. Marital status, gays and straights should agree, is definitely a matter of choice.
But some have said overweight people face discrimination in employment. Do they get added to the list of civil rights beneficiaries? And just what are civil rights?
They're the rights you have as a citizen. They include those rights listed in the Bill of Rights, the right to vote, the right to get a fair return on your taxes and some others. But - here's the hard truth, folks, whether we like it or not - jobs, housing and public accommodations are not civil rights. You're not entitled to a job, a home or a walk into the bar or movie of your choice. For years, government in this country assumed that folks could obtain jobs and homes on their own.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and laws banning discrimination against women are notable exceptions to that tradition. Those who question why any group - not just gays - should be added to the list are not necessarily bigots. They may just be voices of caution urging us not to sink into a quagmire we can't get out of.