FREDERICK -- Gay rights advocates and conservative religious groups will be watching intently today as the Frederick County commissioners vote on a proposal to ban discrimination against homosexuals.
Supporters and opponents don't agree on much, but both sides say the vote will be a defining moment for the fast-growing county.
The issue, which has divided residents, is surfacing at a time when gay rights activists are nursing the wounds of defeat at the statewide level.
The vote comes six months after a Senate committee in Annapolis, including Frederick's two Republican senators, frustrated Gov. Parris N. Glendening's attempt to win passage of a similar anti-discrimination measure. It gives gay rights groups a long-shot chance at a symbolic victory at a time when the governor is shying away from a renewed battle for his legislation.
Proponents have been pleasantly surprised that the measure has come as far as it has in Frederick, where genteel rural conservatism has been giving way to a more confrontational style of suburban conservative politics.
The proposal would add "sexual orientation" to a county law banning discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations on the basis of race, gender and other characteristics.
The issue was dropped into the commissioner's laps by the county'sHuman Relations Commission, whose members say they are just doing their job.
"It is the fair and the honorable thing to do," said Margaret Hays, a panel member who said she wants to combat the image of Frederick as a "socially bigoted community."
Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore have ordinances that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. If the commissioners endorse the proposal, Frederick would be the first county outside the Baltimore-Washington area to support gay rights.
The action would be largely symbolic because there is virtually no chance the county's conservative legislative delegation would agree to support the measure, which would require General Assembly approval.
But at an emotional hearing Tuesday night, dozens of proponents and opponents spoke as if the fate of the county depended on the result.
"Frederick County is at that crossroads," said Bill Devens, president of the Maryland Family Values Alliance.
Devens set the tone for the evening by charging the measure would open a "Pandora's box of perversion," including county-sanctioned pedophilia and bestiality.
"Homosexuals have proven themselves to be irresponsible disease carriers, detrimental to the health of society," Devens told the commissioners. His remarks drew applause from the more than 100 people who packed the hearing room in Winchester Hall.
Opponents drew heavily on religious arguments, with one preacher describing homosexual practices as "abominations" practiced by "sodomites."
"We're not preaching hate. We preach against sin," said the Rev. Richard Glass, associate pastor of the Apostolic Light House in Walkersville. He added that he didn't hate gays or lesbians, just as he doesn't hate murderers.
Supporters were no less vehement in their arguments.
David Koontz, a Frederick resident who chairs the Western Maryland Gay and Lesbian Alliance, assailed the "fear tactics" of opponents and recalled that Hitler and Stalin targeted homosexuals for death.
"Others of us have been beaten and tied to fence posts in freezing weather and left to die," he said in a reference to last year's murder in Wyoming of gay student Matthew Shepard.
"How many of you have been called faggot this week?" said Koontz, who ran for the House of Delegates last year. "You don't know what it's like. You can't. You're not in my shoes."
The commissioners' vote follows recent incidents that have split the county over the issue of homosexuality.
The first was a fund-raising letter sent by local Republican state Sen. Alex X. Mooney assailing "radical homosexuals" and bragging about his role in throttling Glendening's statewide gay rights bill last spring.
The letter, widely denounced as inflammatory, was followed by distribution of a Ku Klux Klan leaflet denouncing homosexuals. Mooney later sent out a news release disavowing his unwanted allies.
At the hearing, county resident Carol Antoniewicz said Frederick County has a chance to set a "positive example" on civil rights after some "embarrassing press."
"I want to be proud to say I'm from Frederick County, we don't allow discrimination here," she said, drawing faint applause from outnumbered gay rights advocates.
Three of the five county commissioners have taken positions on the proposal.
Commissioner John L. Thompson is a vehement opponent who says he is standing up for the right of employers to decide what conduct they will accept from their employees. Fellow Republican Ilona Hogan said she is disinclined to support a measure she knows the county's legislative delegation opposes.
Commissioner Jan Gardner, the lone Democrat on the board, supports the measure.
That leaves the decision up to board President David Gray and Vice President Terre Rhoderick. Neither has said how he would vote, though proponents believe Gray is leaning in favor.
Rhoderick said he might not make up his mind until today's vote.
Pub Date: 10/21/99