The Howard County Office of Human Rights is going forward with an investigation of civil rights complaints filed by an anti-smoking group against 13 restaurants, according to the group.
"It's passed the first hurdle," said Al Ertel, co-chairman of the Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces based in Rockville. "We think we're on to something."
The civil rights complaints -- against five Columbia-area restaurants and eight in Ellicott City -- are part of the group's strategy to eliminate smoking in all restaurants in Howard County, already subject to the strictest anti-smoking law in the state.
Howard's anti-smoking law prohibits smoking in restaurants except in separately ventilated, enclosed bar areas. The law, which took effect in July, has forced most of the county's 300 restaurants to eliminate smoking.
But for the few restaurants that still permit smoking, the civil rights complaints argue that their bar areas are not accessible to people with severe respiratory problems, the same way a second-floor store with no elevator is not accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Using disability laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act is an increasingly common legal tactic for activists eager to push even beyond laws aimed specifically at curbing smoking.
The Howard County Office of Human Rights does not comment on complaints until they reach a public hearing. The office has not commented on -- or even confirmed the existence of -- complaints from the anti-smoking group, but Ertel said office administrator James E. Henson Sr. called him last week.
According to Ertel, Henson said the office had determined that ++ the complaints were within its jurisdiction.
That determination is usually followed by months of investigation and attempts at conciliation.
The complaints name five restaurants in or near Columbia: Clyde's and Bennigan's in Town Center, TGI Friday's in the Columbia Restaurant Park, Michael's Pub in Kings Contrivance and McAllister's off Route 108.
The other eight restaurants named are in Ellicott City: the Crab Shanty, Bare Bones, Captain's Choice, Kelsey's, Jilly's, Cocao Lane, Sidestreets and PJ's.
Pub Date: 12/06/96