WASHINGTON – A Maryland gay rights law took effect Wednesday, after opponents of the legislation conceded they did not have enough signatures to put the measure to a vote in next year’s general election.
The Anti-Discrimination Act was scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, but was put on hold after opponents filed petitions to put it to referendum on next fall’s ballot. But supporters challenged the validity of those petitions in court and, on Wednesday, both sides agreed that the petition was invalid.
Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled late Wednesday that the petitions did “not possess the number of valid signatures necessary to meet constitutional minimum for a referendum” and he ordered that the law take effect immediately.
“This is an enormous victory for Maryland’s gays and lesbians who now can live free from prejudice,” said Blake Humphreys of the Free State Justice Campaign.
Officials with TakeBackMaryland, the interfaith coalition that mounted the petition drive, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday’s ruling.
But representatives from the organization had earlier charged that the law goes beyond providing equal rights for homosexuals. On its website, the group called the law a “concerted first step on the part of `gay rights’ activists to promote a pro-homosexual agenda throughout our state. Elevating homosexual behavior to a protected `civil right’ is a terrible moral and civil wrong.”
The Anti-Discrimination Act extends current protections in the workplace, in housing and in public accommodations to include sexual orientation, adding it to protected categories such as race, gender, religion and disability.
The bill had failed for more than a decade before it was finally passed by the General Assembly earlier this year, by about a 2-to-1 margin in each chamber of the legislature. Gov. Parris Glendening had made its passage a priority of his administration in the last legislative session.
Glendening signed the bill May 15, making Maryland the 12th state to pass similar anti-discriminatory legislation.
The bill would have taken effect Oct. 1, but TakeBackMaryland filed what it said were 47,539 valid signatures from Maryland voters, just more than the required 46,128 necessary to force a referendum. Implementation of the law was put on hold pending the outcome of the referendum vote, which would have come next November.
But a number of groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, responded by filing a suit that charged that not all the petition signatures were valid. Additionally, a handful of voters complained to state officials that they had been misled about the effect of the law when they agreed to sign the petition.
Last month, a special review indicated that more than 7,500 signatures on the petition were questionable and subject to challenge. In the consent order entered Wednesday by Lerner, all parties agreed that the petition signatures were not sufficient.
“With this law now in effect, Maryland begins the 21st century as a beacon of fairness, justice and inclusion,” Glendening said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
“We move forward in the new economy knowing that every Marylander will be able to reach his or her full potential, without regard to race, gender, ethnicity, or whom they happen to love,” the statement said.