A coalition of religious and family-values groups has gathered enough voter signatures to force a referendum in November next year on a law prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals, state elections officials said yesterday.
The successful petition drive by TakeBackMary- land.org means that an anti-bias law approved by the General Assembly this year will not take effect Oct. 1 and will be in limbo until the referendum vote.
The measure was adopted in March after an arduous 10-year campaign by supporters, who were led in recent years by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It now returns to the political fray and could affect next year's gubernatorial race.
"It's a sense of relief," said Gary Cox, head of Family Heritage Matters, the Frederick-based group that helped collect signatures. "The process we have to go through now is to get the message out to the public. It becomes a regular, political election year-type issue."
Cox and others collected 47,539 valid signatures, said Donna Duncan, director of the state election management division. They needed 46,128 voters' signatures to trigger a vote, or 3 percent of the total votes cast for governor in 1998.
Backers of the anti-discrimination initiative said they were disappointed that their fight must continue, but predicted victory at the ballot box.
"While this is a temporary setback for Maryland, we fully expect that voters will uphold the law and will provide a strong mandate against discrimination," said Cathy Brennan, a board member of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland. "A broad coalition of individuals across the state worked hard to enact this, and that same coalition will be working to protect the legislation."
This year, Maryland became the 12th state, plus the District of Columbia, to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Anti-Discrimination Act of 2001 made it illegal for sexual status to be considered in buying or renting a house or apartment, applying for a job, or seeking public accommodations such as hotel rooms and restaurant meals.
A similar ban is on the books in Baltimore and Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, covering nearly half of the state's population.
To appease wavering lawmakers, the law was amended to state explicitly that it "not be construed to authorize or validate" same-sex marriage or require employers to offer health benefits to unmarried domestic partners.
The impending debate has the potential to color the gubernatorial election and other races next year, political observers say.
"Everybody will be asked about it, and everybody will have to take a position on it," said Carol Arscott, a GOP pollster. "It's not going to be something you will be able to duck. And most candidates would probably prefer to duck it."
How important the issue becomes in next year's campaign depends largely on the extent of media coverage, Arscott said.
A statewide poll conducted for The Sun and two Washington-area news outlets released in January found that 60 percent of Marylanders favor gay rights.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the early favorite in the governor's race, has been far less outspoken than Glendening on the issue.
Her chief of staff, Alan Fleischmann, said yesterday that she supports the governor's position. "She does believe it is important to have tolerance, inclusion and fairness," he said.
Opponents of the law say they are undaunted by polls and that government should not support homosexual behavior.
"This campaign has demonstrated that the state's politicians are out of step with the majority of Marylanders who believe that homosexual behavior is immoral and dangerous, both to the individual and to society," the Rev. Matthew Sine, pastor of Allentown Baptist Church, said in a statement last month when the coalition submitted its final signatures.
The law's supporters accuse TakeBackMaryland.org's leaders of misinterpreting its impact.
"We've already seen tactics to distort what the bill does," said Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening. "The point that the governor and others who helped pass the bill will make is that this law extends the same basic protection that so many of us take for granted to all Marylanders. It does not create special rights."