A petition by the far-right group TakeBackMaryland.org to put that state's recently passed gay-rights law to the voters seems likely to be thrown out by the court. The homophobes appear to have violated state laws in collecting some of those signatures and did not gather enough valid ones to require a referendum. The legal wrangling likely will continue for months.
The Maryland state legislature passed the Antidiscrimination Act of 2001 earlier this spring and it was to have gone into effect Oct. 1. But when TakeBack filed what initially appeared to be sufficient valid signatures...only 1,411 more than what state law required, according to the state board of elections...that put the law in limbo pending results of the November 2002 vote.
Gay advocates countered with their own legal action July 30, charging misrepresentation of the petition on the part of some who circulated it, and improper certification of petitions by county elections officials.
"We found enough signatures that should not have been validated, almost 5,000, that we thought we should challenge the petition," said Charles J. Butler, an attorney with the prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling. He sued on behalf of the gay group Free State Justice and 24 other plaintiffs.
The court appointed Walter Childs as "special master" to investigate issues surrounding the signatures and report back to it. His report Oct. 5 noted factual errors with 6,519 signatures that are "subject to challenge."
Based on that report, Butler began taking depositions from petition circulators with the TakeBack group, in preparation for the anticipated trial. Each interview is conducted under oath. He has conducted five so far and plans on perhaps a dozen more.
In a private conversation, Butler could barely conceal his glee. The fine churchgoing circulators clearly did not want to lie under oath. They admitted that sometimes the wording of the petition was not attached to the document that people signed, and that some of the petitions were left at religious bookstores and picked up later, sometimes missing data was filled in by someone other than the person who signed the petition...all of which are violations of the law.
Butler said many of those he interviewed were uneasy, because they had come to understand their actions were illegal. "They had perjured themselves when they signed the petition saying they had witnessed each signature," he said, and they were coming to understand that there is a legal penalty associated with those violations.
The TakeBack leaders reacted with their usual tactics of name-calling. "The ACLU and Maryland's homosexual lobby are using search and destroy political tactics to disenfranchise citizens in our state," said Pastor Matt Sine, the trans-Potomac Jerry Falwell wannabe.
Cofounder Tres Kerns accused Free State Justice of "using legal technicalities" in challenging the petition.
Free State Justice executive director Blake Humphreys is grinning broadly, but the group continues to prepare as if it will face a referendum on the state's gay-rights law next November. It is interviewing people for the position of campaign director.
But it also is hoping to offer just a three-month contract, by which time they hope that the court will finally have put a stake through the heart of the petition effort. And Maryland will become the 12th state in the nation where a comprehensive gay-rights law is in force.