3rd District called a 'religious gerrymander'

October 04, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The shape of Maryland's 3rd Congressional District has been compared to everything from a Rorschach Test inkblot to a crime-scene blood spatter to a broken-winged pterodactyl, but according to one theory its odd dimensions could have a basis in religion as well as politics.

Howard L. Gorrell, a Republican activist who challenged the recently redrawn redistricting map in court, said his analysis supports a theory that the 3rd district's lines were drawn in part to pack as many Jews as possible into the turf of U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat.

Gorrell noted a 2011 article in the Jewish Times in which Sarbanes expressed relief at keeping much of the Jewish community in his district. Sarbanes is Greek Orthodox but his wife, Dina, is Jewish. The congressman's father, Paul Sarbanes, represented the 3rd District before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1976, and always enjoyed strong support in the Jewish community.

Gorrell notes that the 3rd District, which snakes from heavily Jewish Pikesville around Baltimore to Dundalk before branching out to Montgomery County and Annapolis, has been identified as one of the least compact congressional districts in the nation.

One reason the map is that way is that Sarbanes, a Democrat who lives in Baltimore County, wanted to keep Annapolis in his already somewhat convoluted district. Meanwhile Gov. Martin O'Malley and General Assembly leaders were trying to distribute the state's Democrats in a way that would help them pick up a Republican-held congressional seat.

The weird-looking map that resulted has survived lawsuits but faces a challenge at the polls after Republican activists gathered enough signatures to put the redistricting plan on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Gorrell said that because the U.S. Census doesn't count people on the basis of religion, he compiled a list of 126 active synagogues in Maryland and determined which districts they fell into. He found that 48, or 42 percent of the total, are in the 3rd. That's five more than under the previous district map, Gorrell found.

Only the Montgomery County-dominated 8th District, with 37 temples, comes close.

Gorrell's conclusion is that the 3rd is gerrymandered on the basis of religion. Taking an academic rather than a partisan view, he notes that one could consider the map as one that preserves "communities of interest" for Jews.

"Community of interest" is a legal term for keeping like-minded people together in a single district -- a consideration recognized by the courts as permissible in redistricting.

Nevertheless, Gorrell complained that the map disadvantages two other communities of interest -- farmers and residents of eastern Montgomery County.

According to Gorrell, the question of whether it's allowable to draw lines to keep members of one religion in one district has never been tested before the Supreme Court.

A reasonable conclusion is that if that question ever comes before the high court, there's a good chance it will be a Maryland case.

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