- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

ANNAPOLIS The Maryland Senate took a pivotal step yesterday toward providing homosexuals and bisexuals specific legal protection against discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment, approving legislation on a 32-14 vote.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. has said he will bring the proposal, which the House approved in 1999, to a vote today, according to Delegate Sheila Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.
The measures would subject employers, landlords, or anyone controlling access to public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, arenas and gas stations to lawsuits from persons claiming they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
Before suing, a person would have to file a complaint with the state's Human Relations Commission. A person found guilty of discrimination could be fined from $500 to $2,500, depending on whether the violation was a first or subsequent offense.
Critics said the proposed legislation was an example of government overstepping its bounds.
"There's a little encroachment here, a little there. I think before long we are going to be fighting for our very lives, philosophically, religiously, spiritually," said Sen. Timothy Ferguson, a Republican who represents Frederick and Carroll counties.
But the Senate vote was a victory for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, homosexual-rights activists and bill sponsors. Their efforts to expand civil rights protections for homosexuals were rebuffed in 1999 when the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee failed to vote on the bill.
"This is a very important day for fairness, justice and inclusion," said Mr. Glendening. "Half the state's population already has this law in effect … it hasn't been the end of Western civilization."
"We are ecstatic," said Blake Humphreys, executive director of the Free State Justice, a coalition of homosexual, bisexual and transgendered activists.
Homosexual-rights laws are already on the books at the county and municipal level in Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties and in Baltimore.
Sen. Delores Kelley, Baltimore Democrat, told her colleagues that her sister, a physician who has delivered many babies, came to believe through observation that there are more than two sexes.
"We don't know why most things in nature are as they are," Mrs. Kelley said before joining 29 other Democrats and two Republicans in voting for the bill.
Maryland Catholic Conference lobbyist Richard J. Dowling said he was disappointed that the Senate didn't include an exemption for individuals based on personal religious convictions.
Mr. Dowling said the Catholic conference is also concerned that courts could interpret "sexual orientation … to include sexual behavior or activity."
"It seems to me legislators would want to make clear to voters they were not legitimating homosexual activity," Mr. Dowling said.
Sen. Leo Green, Prince George's County Democrat, secured changes to the bill, clarifying that it doesn't endorse homosexual "marriages," domestic-partner benefits or teaching about homosexuality in schools.
Sen. Alex Mooney, a Republican representing Frederick and Carroll counties, secured a provision exempting the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. He also won a change allowing businesses to survey their employees about their sexual orientation and to offer the results as a defense if they were being sued.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Democrat, said he believes, given the amendments, "most Marylanders will accept the bill."
But Sen. Richard Colburn, a Republican who represents the middle Eastern Shore, is not one of them.
"I want to take this opportunity to commend the governor on fulfilling his dreams of … making Annapolis the San Francisco of the East Coast," Mr. Colburn said.
Legislation that would raise vehicle license-tag fees to raise money for Maryland's emergency medical system survived a challenge yesterday in the state Senate.
The bill would add $3 to the $8 annual surcharge Marylanders pay when they renew their motor-vehicle registrations. The increase would bring in about $13 million for the fund that pays for trauma centers, medical-evacuation helicopters, paramedics and ambulance crews.
Money from the fund also is used to train emergency medical technicians and to help volunteer fire companies buy equipment.
Opponents tried to scrap the fee increase and replace it with a $15 surcharge on fines paid for traffic moving violations.
But Sen. Barbara Hoffman, Baltimore Democrat, said the surcharge on license-tag fees, unlike fines, would be a steady, reliable source of funding to keep the state's emergency medical system the best in the nation.
Mrs. Hoffman said that for less than the cost of one Big Mac per year at McDonald's, Marylanders can ensure that if they get involved in a serious accident, emergency crews will be there to take care of them.
The bill is expected to come back for a final Senate vote today. It is similar to a bill that already has passed the House of Delegates.
Legislators got a visit yesterday from the five astronauts who recently returned from a 5 million mile journey into space aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
Three of the five were born in Maryland and got a special welcome in the House and Senate.
Astronaut Marsha Ivins got a laugh from lawmakers when she told them she moved from Maryland shortly after she was born, but can nevertheless recognize a substandard crab cake when sees one.
Two other astronauts Robert Curbean and Thomas Jones grew up in Maryland and graduated from public high schools in Baltimore County.
The five went into space to work on the new International Space Station's science laboratory.


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