ANNAPOLIS – A twice-failed controversial bill that would protect gays and bisexuals from discrimination in Maryland sparked clashing testimony here Thursday.
Proponents praised the legislation as a civil rights measure, while critics said it gives special status to those who don’t deserve it.
The bill adds sexual orientation to the categories protected from discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment. That list already includes race, sex, age, color, creed, national origin, marital status, and physical or mental handicap.
Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, the author, has 24 co- sponsors. The bill was assigned this year to the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which should respond more favorably than the Judiciary Committee, where the measure died in 1993 and ’94.
“Bigotry and prejudice should not be tolerated,” Hixson told Commerce and Government Matters members. “We should not allow a segment of our population to be discriminated against because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.”
But views diverged sharply between and within the gay, business and religious communities.
“We’re not in favor of giving homosexuals minority status,” said Jim Rogers of Mission America, a self-described pro-family organization. “They choose the lifestyle and then want special status they don’t deserve.”
Rogers was among several opponents who contended special status would legitimize what he sees as “perversion in society,” leading to the destruction of family values.
Others argued the legislation would promote family values.
“Everyone is discriminated against when one is discriminated against,” said Colette Roberts, whose daughter is a lesbian now attending the University of Maryland at College Park.
Linda Linton, chairperson of a gay issues group at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, agreed, stressing that there are many different types of families besides the traditional with a mother, father and children.
But other religious leaders had different views.
“We believe in the old-fashioned way – that what scriptures tells us is the truth,” said Pastor Matthew J. Sine of the Freedom of Religion Coalition in Upper Marlboro. He said, “the scriptures teach us that homosexuality is not an accepted lifestyle.”
Leaders from the Maryland Civil Rights Coalition and similar groups tried to steer the debate away from religion.
“Much of the opposition of this bill comes here to make this a forum to challenge homosexuality. This bill is about discrimination,” said Robert St.-Genis of the Free State Justice Campaign, a state grass roots organization for the homosexual and bi-sexual community.
“This is not a religious issue,” St.-Genis said. “If anything, this is good for business. There’s already corporations in Maryland that have anti-discrimination policies and are happy and productive.”
While some business owners supported the legislation, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,600 businesses statewide, was opposed, said spokesperson Alisha H. Reff.
The chamber maintains the legislation would place Maryland businesses at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states that don’t have similar laws.
But proponents say Maryland should be a leader in passing civil rights laws. Legislation protecting homosexuals already exists in eight other states and within Maryland – in Baltimore as well as Prince George’s, Montgomery and Howard counties.
“Justice should not be a matter of which county you live in, it should not be a matter of luck,” said Heather R. McCabe, a lesbian who testified before the committee.
She added, “We each deserve to be free of discrimination in our lives.” -30-