ANNAPOLIS – A proposal to protect gays from discrimination under the state’s human rights law sparked an outcry Friday from religious groups who questioned the state’s role in protecting homosexuals.
“I believe it creates a hostile environment to those who follow traditional values,” said Jeff Johnston, director of Regeneration, a Baltimore clinic that claims homosexuality is a behavior that can be reversed.
But gay rights groups said the bill — which would include sexual orientation in the law that bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations — is desperately needed.
“There still exists homophobia in our state,” said Liz Seaton, co-chairwoman of the Free State Justice Campaign. “Landlords still refuse them housing when they look for housing with their same-sex partners.
“This law … is about making sure that all Maryland citizens are treated fairly,” she said to the House Judiciary Committee.
Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, said she has been introducing the “long overdue” bill for five years. Gays and gay rights activists recounted tales of harassment and “horrifying remarks” for the packed hearing.
Henry Ford, executive director of the Maryland Human Relations Commission, said that discrimination based on sexual orientation should not be treated any differently from a case of gender or race discrimination.
He said the bill would not “condone the homosexual lifestyle, it simply prohibits a certain form of discrimination.”
His comments upset Del. Emmett C. Burns, D-Baltimore, who said sexual orientation is not the same as other classes — such as race, gender and age — that are now protected.
“I’m from Mississippi, and I’ve seen the worst of racial segregation,” said Burns, who is black. “To equate the homosexual issue to my race upsets me very much because they’re not the same.
“This new class is going to mean more (court) cases you’re going to have to deal with” as gays bring unfavorable hiring decisions to court, Burns said.
Alan Zukerberg, who said his son is gay, responded that homosexuality should have similar status as race and gender because sexual orientation is inborn.
But several speakers who identified themselves as former homosexuals disputed Zukerberg’s statement. They described homosexuality as a “developmental disorder” and said the bill would give state approval to it, while silencing any criticism.
“Homosexuality is a behavior, it’s not an identity,” said Richard Cohen of the International Healing Foundation. “Anybody can change if he or she so desires.”
By that logic, said Del. Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, heterosexuality could also be a learned behavior. But Cohen said that “if you observe the natural order of creation, men and women fit together.”
“Enacting legislation is affirming a disorder … that can be changed,” he said.
The committee took no action on the bill after Friday’s hearing.