ANNAPOLIS – A referendum disputing Maryland’s new gay-rights law may be in jeopardy after a special review released Friday indicated more than 7,500 signatures used to get the measure on the November 2002 ballot are “subject to challenge.”
Special Master Walter Childs’ report said he reviewed petitions “for characteristics, which may make a signature or all signatures on an individual petition page subject to challenge.”
The ruling could potentially invalidate each petition sheet where a contested signature is noted.
That could mean the referendum bid fails and the Maryland Anti- Discrimination Act, which was supposed to have become effective Oct. 1, could be allowed to take effect.
TakebackMaryland.org collected 47,539 valid signatures from Maryland residents, just more than the required 46,128 necessary for a referendum to stop the law.
Representatives from TakeBackMaryland, an interfaith coalition of pro- family groups and individuals dedicated to defeating Gov. Parris Glendening’s gay-rights bill, say the act goes beyond providing equal rights for homosexuals.
But the ruling Friday gives the edge to groups like Free State Justice, a civil rights advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Marylanders with 8,000 members statewide. It was one of 25 plaintiffs to file a July 30 lawsuit against the Secretary of State and the State Board of Elections challenging certification of the petition.
Childs was appointed by the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court to review the petition signatures.
Secretary of State John Willis’ office declined to comment on the potential effects of the special master’s report.
Tres Kerns, chairman of TakeBackMaryland.org, was unavailable for comment.
Up to 25 different defects were found on the petitions by the special master. Plaintiffs’ attorney Charles Butler said those defects include the accusation that members of TakeBackMaryland collected signatures through fraudulent means by misrepresenting the purpose of the petition.
While it was not named in the original complaint, TakeBackMaryland entered the lawsuit out of “concerns that the state may not offer a zealous defense against the allegations made,” said Brian Fahling, a lawyer for the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy representing TakeBackMaryland.
Since Glendening is a chief proponent for the gay-rights legislation, Fahling said, that leads to obvious questions whether his subordinates would feel compelled to offer a full defense of the certified petitions. That view was underscored, he said, by comments that were hostile and derogatory about people who support TakeBackMaryland.
The legislation infringes upon freedom of conscience and religious beliefs, said Fahling. Plus the plaintiffs failed to present evidence before a special master was assigned to the case.
Each party will have 10 days to file exceptions to Childs’ report. It might be three months before a trial starts, Butler said, adding Judge Eugene Lerner has been assigned to the case.
The legislation would protect Marylanders of all sexual orientation from discrimination on the job, in housing and in public accommodations, said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, a chief sponsor of the bill.
The law would revise current anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation protection and would make Maryland the 12th state to pass similar anti-discriminatory legislation.
“Anything discriminatory on any group of people is wrong,” said Hixson. “This (law) only deals in fairness and I don’t think that message was delivered when signing the petition. I think they (TakeBackMaryland) were using `scare tactics.'”
The Secretary of State’s office received at least 12 letters about being tricked or misled into signing the petition, said Blake Humphreys, managing director of Free State Justice. He said opponents of the legislation are misrepresenting the purpose and language of the measure by exaggerating its intent.
“The opponents are trying to use misinformation and stereotypes to demonize the gay and lesbian community when all we are asking for is equal rights,” said Humphreys. “This bill is specific about ending discrimination in certain areas. The bill has nothing to do with gay marriages, school curriculum, or domestic partner benefits.”
The Anti-discrimination Act had been introduced to the General Assembly for the past 11 years, before passing in 2001 by about a 2-to-1 margin in each house. Glendening signed the bill May 15, upon hearing favorable remarks from his Special Commission to Study Sexual Orientation Discrimination.
“The governor is confident that Marylanders will continue to support efforts to foster a greater sense of fairness, justice and inclusion,” said Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for the governor. “This legislation simply says that it is wrong to discriminate against anyone based on their sexual orientation.”
“I think this puts in jeopardy a lot of the work that was accomplished,” said Geoffrey Greif, committee chairman and assistant dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
“It’s a disappointment to see it going to referendum when it’s clear to me that there is a need for the passage of the legislation. Discrimination is a very painful event, and is often hidden when it comes to sexual orientation.”
More than half of Maryland residents live under existing anti- discrimination laws upheld by their local jurisdictions, said Byrnie.