Ruling is expected Dec. 17 on gay rights law referendum

Circuit judge to decide on validity of petition

November 01, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County judge is expected to decide Dec. 17 whether Maryland's gay rights law will go to referendum in next year's election.

Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner set the hearing date yesterday. He is presiding over a lawsuit filed by supporters of the law, who contend that petitions calling for the referendum contain invalid signatures and should be thrown out.

The judge also issued an order yesterday that requires the referendum's backers to pay part of the $40,000 fee of a special master, who was hired by the court to review petition signatures.

At issue is a law passed by the General Assembly this year to outlaw discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.

A coalition of religious conservatives and others who oppose the law - called TakeBackMaryland.org - collected signatures to force a referendum.

The state elections board concluded in July that the law's opponents collected enough signatures for a referendum. But gay rights advocates went to court, arguing that many of the signatures appear to be invalid.

The special master reviewed the 47,730 signatures and found that hundreds might be invalid because of how they were gathered.

The petitions contain 1,602 more signatures than necessary. If the judge finds that more than 1,602 are invalid, the gay rights law will take effect and a referendum will not be held.

Both sides dispute some of the master's findings.

They agreed at yesterday's hearing to file new exceptions based on an amended report the master issued yesterday. The new report adjusts some of an original report's findings to correct errors identified by the opposing parties.

Lerner did resolve one issue yesterday. He decided that the three leaders of TakeBackMaryland.org will have to pay 10 percent of the master's fee.

Brian Fahling, attorney for the organization, argued that its leaders should not be made to pay for the master's services. He contended that the appointment of the master served only the interests of gay rights advocates.

He also contended that requiring the payment would set a bad precedent and discourage citizens from exercising their right to petition for a referendum.

Charles J. Butler, attorney for the gay rights advocates, and Assistant Attorney General Michael D. Berman, representing the state, argued that the expenses should be split equally among the three parties.

After hearing the arguments, Lerner decided, without explaining the reasons, to require TakeBackMaryland.org leaders to pay 10 percent and the other parties to pay 45 percent each.

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