Gay rights now law

Md. bill takes effect after foes concede failure of petition bid

`A beacon of fairness'

Measure's backers had filed lawsuit contesting names

November 22, 2001|By Michael Dresser and Andrea F. Siegel | Michael Dresser and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A bill banning discrimination against homosexuals became state law yesterday after organizers of a campaign to overturn the legislation admitted they did not gather enough valid signatures to force a referendum.

The measure took effect at 3:31 p.m., when Judge Eugene M. Lerner of Anne Arundel Circuit Court approved an agreement reached by opponents and advocates earlier in the day.

"I'm glad you were able to work it out," Lerner said, shaking the hands of lawyers Charles J. Butler and Dwight H. Sullivan, who represented gay rights organizations. Attorneys for the law's opponents did not attend the four-minute huddle around Lerner's desk.

Brian Fahring, an attorney for opponents of the law, said his clients conceded after "an honest appraisal" of the evidence forced them to conclude they had no chance of prevailing in a lawsuit brought by supporters of the gay rights legislation.

"It's the simple acknowledgement of what in fact is true," said Fahring, who represented TakeBackMaryland.org, which sponsored the referendum drive.

The General Assembly approved the anti-discrimination legislation this year after a determined lobbying effort by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who made its an enactment a top priority.

Glendening, in a statement celebrating the legal capitulation, said, "With this law now in effect, Maryland begins the 21st Century as a beacon of fairness, justice and inclusion. We move forward in the new economy knowing that every Marylander will be able to reach his or her full potential without regard to race, gender, ethnicity or whom they happen to love."

The law in effect adds gays and lesbians to the groups, including women and minorities, protected by state law banning discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Four Maryland jurisdictions - Baltimore City and Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties - have gay rights laws, but no statewide statute existed until yesterday. Eleven states and Washington have such laws.

A co-founder of TakeBackMaryland.org said the new law will encourage gay rights groups to seek legislation liberalizing adoption practices and establishing gay marriage.

"It has opened the door wide open to what is clearly a pro-homosexual agenda," said the Rev. Matt Sine, a Baptist pastor in Prince George's County.

The deal to end the fight for a referendum was sealed in Lerner's Annapolis chambers, with two of the General Assembly's leading advocates of the bill looking on.

House Majority Leader Maggie L. McIntosh hugged the lawyers. "It's a great day," the Baltimore Democrat said.

"This is an historic occasion," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, comparing the legislation with civil rights laws of a generation ago.

The bill was supposed to become law Oct. 1, but the referendum bid delayed its effective date.

After the General Assembly session, religious conservatives mobilized to collect the 46,128 signatures necessary to put the issue before the voters. They claimed success in July when they turned in 56,557 to the state elections board. The board certified 47,730 as valid, enough to force a referendum.

The American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights groups responded with a lawsuit charging that many of the certified signatures were invalidly collected.

A special master appointed by the judge found that hundreds of the signatures - enough to knock the question off the ballot - did not stand up to legal scrutiny.

The opponents' case crumbled after lawyers for gay rights advocates took depositions in which some petition circulators acknowledged that they hadn't witnessed each signature as it was collected.

Fahring, an attorney with the American Family Association for Law and Policy, said his clients were disappointed with the result. "When we came in to the litigation, we had a good, firm belief we could prevail," he said.

The lawyer said that in the process of discovery and deposition-taking, it became clear that "missteps" on the part of people circulating petitions would leave the law's opponents short of the required number of signatures.

He said he knew of no further legal steps the law's opponents could take. That would leave repeal by the General Assembly as their only possible route, and that would require a seismic shift in Maryland politics.

Sine of TakeBackMaryland.org held out hope.

"I believe it will be a major issue in the next election," he said. "A lot of Maryland citizens are very upset at their elected officials right now."

Butler, lead attorney for gay rights advocates, said the settlement "vindicates our position." He and the ACLU's Sullivan represented Free State Justice, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and 23 individuals.

Jason Young, spokesman for Free State Justice, said Maryland is a safer place to live and work because of the law. "Someone asked if we were tickled pink," he said. "I said we were tickled purple."

Cathy Brennan, a board member of the community center, called the outcome "a tremendous victory, not only for the gay community, but for all Marylanders who value civil rights."

She noted that the law protects not only homosexuals, but also heterosexuals who are perceived as being gay. The law would also protect a straight person who was discriminated against by a gay employer or landlord.

Fahring criticized the state's "extremely onerous" requirements for a referendum challenging an act of the General Assembly.

The Tupelo, Miss., attorney said Maryland law does not leave enough time after the General Assembly acts to mount a petition drive. He said the failure to gain enough valid signatures could be attributed to "people trying to meet deadlines, trying to do their level best and in the process making missteps."

Deputy Attorney General Carmen Shepard said courts have struck down referendums because of invalid signatures before, but she said she knew of no such cases since the 1960s.

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