Groups say bills push gay agenda

Conservatives, Christians petition against 4 measures

Requests filed for referendums

Medical decision-making, hate-crime laws criticized

April 25, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

The legislative session may have ended, but a battle over several bills critics say further gay rights is reaching an elevated pitch.

Conservative and Christian groups are mounting a widespread effort - using e-mails and Web sites with often-fiery rhetoric - against four bills they charge promote the gay agenda.

"Pray that God's will be done and that all the churches rise up against these bills," says an e-mail distributed to members of the Christian Coalition of Maryland.

The bills passed the Senate and House of Delegates this session and are awaiting action - or inaction - from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. before becoming law.

Tres Kerns, executive director of VoteMarriage.org and Take Back Maryland, filed petition requests with the Maryland State Board of Elections last week to repeal three bills through voter referendums.

The legislation would add gays to the categories of people protected under the state's hate- crime laws, allow unmarried couples to make property transfers without paying state or local taxes and require schools to report bullying incidents.

"We don't feel that the citizens of Maryland have really had a chance to vote on whether homosexuality should be considered a special class of citizens or not," said Kerns, of Anne Arundel.

Kerns' groups, along with other organizations, such as the Christian Coalition of Maryland, Defend Maryland Marriage and the Family Protection Lobby, also are supporting Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr.'s petition efforts to repeal a bill to give unmarried couples medical decision-making rights, among other benefits.

That effort is a large and coordinated one, and includes help from lawmakers of both parties, according to Defend Maryland Marriage organizers who would not identify the participating lawmakers.

The loosely knit network of groups also is urging members to lobby Ehrlich to veto all four bills.

"I almost feel like I'm living in the '50s with the Red Scare," said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. "But now we're living in the Pink Scare. It's gay people and gay marriage instead of communists."

To get referendums onto the 2006 ballot, opponents have to collect 51,195 signatures for each bill by June 30 of this year.

No more than half of the signatures can come from one county or Baltimore City, and one-third must be filed by May 31.

Once the signatures are filed, State Board of Elections employees would have 20 days to certify them and approve or reject the petitions.

A successful petition drive would suspend the laws until after the 2006 general election, when voters would decide whether to repeal it.

Success in this type of petition effort has proven to be a difficult task. Collecting the signatures is tedious, and those leading the efforts expect the petitions to be challenged in court.

In the past 14 years, petition efforts have been successful only once. In 1991, opponents of a bill to prohibit state interference in abortion succeeded in getting it on the ballot. But voters ultimately did not support repealing the bill.

In 2001, Kerns launched a petition effort to repeal a bill that added gays to the state's anti-discrimination laws. The petition was successfully challenged in court and did not make it onto the ballot.

Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, a statewide gay advocacy group, said his group has already met with the attorney who successfully challenged the 2001 petition attempt and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"They can expect a legal challenge around every corner," said Furmansky. "We'll work to do everything we can to prevent these from making it onto the ballot."

Madaleno questioned the labeling of the anti-bullying bill, the Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005, as an encouragement to minors to become gay.

"I guess the whole idea is a 14-year-old should be beaten senseless in order to be a straight person," said Madaleno.

Kerns and other opponents of the bill say they fear it would be used to discuss homosexuality in the classroom.

On the VoteMarriage.org Web site, the gay-rights agenda is described as working to "program future youth to be led as lambs into the dangerous and denigrating homosexual lifestyle."

But the bill was not part of the legislative agenda of Equality Maryland, which pushed for the Medical Decision Making Act of 2005 and hate-crimes legislation as top priorities this year.

"This is the rabid anti-gay movement that we're seeing throughout the country and in our state," said Madaleno. "These are people who obviously believe in violence against homosexuals. They want to make life hell for gay people so they'll be straight."

The Rev. Rick Bowers, chairman of Defend Maryland Marriage, stressed that the group's message is not one of hate or taking anything away from anyone.

"We're simply protecting marriage," said the Columbia resident.

Although his group opposes all four bills, Bowers said they are focusing their efforts on the Medical Decision Making Act, which would require the state to establish a domestic registry of participating "life partners," who could be gay or straight.

"I believe that it's the beginning of tearing the fabric of marriage," he said. "The kicker in this bill is the opening for civil unions."

Furmansky sees merits in the legislation.

"We're talking about allowing people to have autonomy over their health care decisions. We're talking about strengthening the state's hate-crimes laws. We're talking about bullying in schools and property taxes," he said.

"Not one of these bills brings us one step closer to Maryland giving out marriage licenses."

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