Md. House Likely to Pass Gay Rights Legislation
By Robert E. Pierre
The Maryland House of Delegates yesterday gave preliminary approval to a measure that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has made the issue one of his top priorities this year, invoking the story of his gay brother, who was forced to hide his homosexuality for fear that he would be forced out of the U.S. Air Force. His brother later died of AIDS.
The measure would authorize the Maryland Commission on Human Relations to investigate complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public places. The commission could impose fines, require payment of back wages and tailor other sanctions in response to a specific discriminatory act.
Final House passage is expected today, less than a week after Glendening threatened to withhold funding for legislators' pet projects until he saw movement on the bills to which he gave high priority. It's unclear whether it will emerge from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, one of the General Assembly's more conservative panels.
If the measure passes, Maryland would join 10 other states and the District of Columbia, which already have such laws. Virginia has no comparable law. More than half of Marylanders reside in jurisdictions that have the protection, including the City of Baltimore and Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties.
Glendening said this week he won't be satisfied with anything less than passage in both houses, but gay rights activists yesterday hailed the House action as a significant milestone. They are encouraged that a bill that has stalled in committee for several years has picked up the support of Glendening and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany).
"If this bill passes the House floor, it would be an enormous victory for the lesbian, gay and bisexual community to celebrate," said Liz Seaton, executive director of the Free State Justice Campaign. "The time has come for this bill."
But many lawmakers, including Del. Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel), remain concerned that the gay rights initiative will have unintended consequences.
"We don't have any idea of the ramifications of this piece of legislative," Greenip said during floor debate yesterday.
She introduced an amendment reflecting concerns expressed by some lawmakers that children's groups need protection from gay men and lesbians. Her amendment to exempt the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from having to comply with the legislation was defeated.
Supporters of the bill contend that private membership groups are already exempted, and they said sexual orientation was irrelevant to a person's dealings with children.
"If a person is gay or straight, it really doesn't matter," said Del. Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore). "It's a matter of one's character. . . . There are lots of non-gay people who are involved in sex with our children."
Seaton said she would be disappointed if the measure failed to pass the Senate but would not give up the fight.
"Civil rights are always long fought and hard won," Seaton said. "It's a process."
Gay rights is one of three key bills that Glendening has pressed lawmakers to approve before the legislature adjourns April 12. He also wants a $1-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax, intended to help reduce teenage smoking, and expansion of bargaining rights for state workers, from whom he won strong support in last fall's election campaign.
Glendening instituted collective bargaining for state workers by executive order in 1996. His legislative proposal to codify that order received preliminary approval in the House yesterday. The measure is not without controversy.
Glendening pushed for a provision that all workers in unionized agencies even those who declined to join the union be required to pay an annual fee to the union.
That requirement was stripped from the bill in favor of a provision that the governor negotiate with the state's dominant union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to reach agreement on whether the payment should be mandatory. Any agreement they reached would be subject to approval by the legislature.
"This bill leaves the door open and allows AFSCME and the governor to negotiate a mandatory fee," said. Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard). "There is no vision here. This is a raw political compromise."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said that a version of Glendening's collective bargaining bill which will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee this week is likely to pass the full Senate.
But Miller was less optimistic about the other bills to which Glendening gives high priority. Miller has rejected outright the idea of increasing the cigarette tax by a dollar a pack. He has not ruled out increasing it by some lower amount.
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