Gay rights law petition fight looms

Both sides review disputed signatures

October 11, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Supporters and opponents of Maryland's gay rights law spent yesterday poring over petitions that will determine whether the statute goes to referendum in next year's election.

Their reviews were prompted by a court-appointed special master's finding that thousands of signatures on petitions calling for a referendum vote might not be valid.

At issue is a law that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations, approved by the General Assembly this year after heavy lobbying by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The law was to have taken effect Oct. 1.

A coalition of religious conservatives and others called TakeBackMaryland.org collected signatures for a referendum to let voters decide if the law should take effect. The state elections board concluded in July that the law's opponents had collected enough signatures for a referendum.

Gay rights advocates went to court, arguing that TakeBack- Maryland.org had not collected enough valid signatures to force a vote.

The special master, at the request of Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner, examined 47,730 signatures that were accepted as valid by the state elections board. The petitions contain 1,602 more signatures than are required to force a vote. If the judge finds that more than that number are invalid, the gay rights law will take effect and no referendum will be held. Both sides said yesterday they are hopeful they will prevail.

Charles J. Butler, a lawyer for gay rights advocates, said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the master's findings will soon spell an end to the referendum effort. "I can't be absolutely certain what the judge will do, but I think our position is correct," Butler said.

However, Brian Fahling, a lawyer for TakeBackMaryland.org, said he thinks the petitions will be found to contain enough valid signatures so that the vote can go forward. "I'm fairly confident we'll come out all right," he said. "If it turns out otherwise, so be it."

The two sides have until Monday to file briefs with Lerner detailing any exceptions to the master's report, which identified several kinds of potential defects.

The biggest category involves cases in which a summary of the gay rights bill was stapled to the back of the petition, rather than printed on the reverse side. That was the case for petitions with 4,967 signatures.

The Maryland attorney general's office has said that it does not believe those signatures are invalid. "It is our position that there is nothing in the law that prohibits stapling," said Assistant Attorney General Michael D. Berman.

And John "Tres" Kerns III, chairman of TakeBackMaryland.org, said his group had been told by state elections officials that it was fine to staple the summaries to the back of the petitions.

Even if the judge determines those petitions are valid, the master's report found other defects that could invalidate as many as 2,500 signatures.

They include 580 cases in which a witness to a signature signed on a different date from one or more individuals who signed the petition. In other cases, the witness or the signer did not date their signatures, boxes weren't filled out or home addresses were not included.

Kerns said his group plans to file exceptions to the master's report and will argue that many of the disputed signatures should not be invalidated.

He said people who spent many hours circulating petitions, and those who signed them, will be disappointed if a large number of signatures are thrown out because of technical defects. "It amounts to saying to the Maryland public that you don't have the right to petition your government if you disagree with it," Kerns said.

He acknowledged, however, that it was his group's responsibility to make sure state law was followed in gathering signatures.

Butler said referendum-drive rules must be strictly enforced. It shouldn't be easy for a minority to "controvert the will" of a popularly elected legislature, he said.

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