A pair of bills that could significantly alter the application of Prince George's County antidiscrimination laws have been working their way through the County Council with little debate or discussion.
One piece of legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Jo Ann T. Bell and expected to be voted on today, has been treated by council members as a bill to prohibit religious discrimination. But a more far-reaching effect of the proposed law, human relations officials have said, is the protection it would extend to unmarried couples seeking housing in the county.
Human Relations Commission Director William Welch said that, under current law, unmarried couples seeking to buy houses in the county have not been covered by antidiscrimination laws. The law provides only that people with a "marital status" as defined by statute are protected from housing bias.
Bell said she attached her name to the bill at the request of the Human Relations Commission, which lost a Maryland Court of Special Appeals test case in 1981 against Greenbelt Homes, a complex of 1,600 cooperatively owned town houses that rejects applications of unmarried persons who apply for joint ownership.
"You don't want to encourage -- as we used to say -- [living in] a state of sin," Bell said. "On the other hand, two consenting adults entering into a joint venture . . . you don't discriminate against any other type of joint venture. Why do so in housing?"
Councilwoman Sue V. Mills agreed. "I believe in the institution of marriage," she said. "But, my God, you can't put a gun over their heads."
Another bill, introduced by Councilman James M. Herl, would prevent employers from discriminating against women because of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. That measure has received committee approval but awaits final council action.
Herl said he drew the idea for the legislation from a bill awaiting action in the District of Columbia. That bill, sponsored by Council Chairman David A. Clarke, was to be voted on today by the District council's Public Services and Cable Television Committee.
But the Prince George's County bill has been linked to a controversial issue that has become anathema to legislative bodies -- abortion.
At a public hearing held in County Council chambers last week, Ann Schutt, president of the Prince George's chapter of the Right To Life organization, complained that by extending that protection to women with pregnancy-related medical conditions, the county could be condoning abortion procedures.
"Abortion is inherently different from other medical conditions because no other procedure involves the purposeful termination of a potential life," Schutt said.
Herl said that Schutt's interpretation is taking the legislation's language "in its most liberal sense." Instead, he said, the council should consider the measure's "legislative intent." He said that current law is too broad to sufficiently protect a pregnant employe's rights.
Welch said, however, that there has never been a challenge to the county's discrimination statute based on sex.
Neither bill has attracted much attention from the public during committee work sessions and last week's public hearings. Some council members interviewed were also unaware of their full effect.
Council Chairman William B. Amonett said that he feels Herl's bill will languish in committee and eventually die "because it is superfluous."