The Frederick County commissioners ducked the contentious issue of gay rights yesterday, deciding not to recommend passage of an anti-discrimination law but ordering public hearings on the issue.
The unanimous vote to send the proposed law back to the county's Human Relations Commission allowed the commissioners to defer taking a stand on the measure this year. The compromise also gives supporters time to build a case that anti-gay bias is a pervasive problem in the county.
The result disappointed Frederick's leading gay-rights activist, who called the board's action "a very watered-down compromise."
David "Kip" Koontz, chairman of the Western Maryland Gay and Lesbian Justice Campaign, had hoped the five-member board would put the proposed law on its wish list of local bills to take to the General Assembly next year.
Instead, commissioners on both sides of the issue agreed to the last-minute compromise offered by board President David Gray. It directs the Human Relations Commission to investigate discrimination in the county, including bias based on sexual orientation, and to report back to the commissioners by July 1.
The original measure, proposed by the Human Relations Commission, would have banned discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Gray said it was "premature" to put it in the county's legislative package for next year.
Because Frederick is not a home rule county, local laws must be approved by its legislative delegation and passed by the General Assembly. Even supporters of the proposal conceded that the county's conservative delegation would refuse to support a gay-rights bill.
In a concession to supporters of the original measure, Gray's substitute stated that the county intends to "eliminate discrimination of any kind that will affect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens."
But Koontz said the decision "will only continue to perpetuate the discrimination."
He said it will be difficult to persuade local gays and lesbians to tell their stories at public hearings because of fear of reprisals from employers and landlords.
Gray, a moderate Republican, said he needed to hear more evidence that discrimination is a problem. "Somebody's got to speak up. If you're scared, get your friend to speak up," Gray said. He said the Human Relations Commission could also catalog complaints it receives through private channels.
Supporters of the legislation saw a glimmer of hope for next year in the comments of Commissioner Ilona Hogan, who had said Tuesday that she planned to oppose the law.
Hogan, a Catholic, said a gay-rights opponent provided her with literature outlining the church's position on homosexuality. She noted that while the church opposes homosexual practices, it teaches that gays should be treated with respect and not discrimination.
"I was very encouraged by Commissioner Hogan's comments," said Commissioner Jan Gardner, the board's lone Democrat and only public supporter of the original proposal.
Pub Date: 10/22/99