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Between the Lines

Anti-Gay-Rights Petition Drive Under Fire

By Molly Rath | Posted 6/27/2001

Click the illustration to a larger version.

This page appeared on TakeBackMarylandÆs Web site during the month of May; Free State JusticeÆs Blake Humphreys says it disappeared in early June, after he began fielding complaints from signers of TakeBackMarylandÆs petition to repeal the stateÆs new civil-rights code.

Click for a larger version.


Twice in the past month, readers of The Sun have learned about John "Tres" Kerns III's efforts to repeal legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly this spring banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. They've read that he is a soft-spoken, Christian evangelical father of five from Severna Park with big, teddy-bear looks and deep religious convictions that homosexuality is immoral. They've read about his austere lifestyle and years-long campaign to preserve the "natural family." And they've read that his latest endeavor may pay off in the days ahead, for he is within a hair of securing the necessary signatures required to send the bill to referendum during the state's November 2002 general election.

What they haven't read about are the charges of misrepresentation Kerns has faced, the attempts by signers to remove their names from his petition before the June 30 deadline, and the counter campaign Maryland gay-rights activists are planning should Kerns and his supporters prevail. If they do and the bill is overturned, says Blake Humphreys, managing director of Free State Justice, a civil-rights group representing Maryland's gay and lesbian community, "people will be discriminated against in the state of Maryland just because of their sexual orientation."

In May, Gov. Parris Glendening signed Senate Bill 205 into law. It adds sexual orientation to the state's civil-rights code, which makes it illegal to discriminate in housing and employment; the new law takes effect Oct. 1. To Christian conservatives like Kerns, the new law augurs a slippery slope of depravity. Kerns recently told The Sun that homosexual marriage, the teaching of homosexuality in schools, and the elimination of Mother's Day (because it discriminates against gay male couples with children) were sure to follow. "It will never end," he lamented in the June 21 article. "We don't know what roads these people will go down after this."

In an attempt to repeal the legislation, Kerns and others launched TakeBackMaryland.org, a self-described "coalition of pro-family groups and individuals who oppose bad laws that hurt people and the family." And they've led a petition drive to send the issue to referendum during the 2002 statewide elections. By June 30, the group must have 46,128 signatures to secure ballot-issue status. By May 31, it was well on its way; according to the State Board of Elections (SBE), it had collected 17,024 signatures, 1,600 more than required in the first collection phase.

Some signers, however, are claiming they were misled into supporting Kerns' cause. Recent articles in the gay-interest weekly newspaper The Washington Blade and the daily Hagerstown Herald-Mail reported allegations that TakeBackMaryland was misrepresenting its mission to get people to sign the petition. Kerns has used TakeBackMaryland's Web site to firmly deny such charges. But pages downloaded from that same site suggest the organization had deliberately been vague in its appeal to Maryland voters.

Throughout the month of May, the TakeBackMaryland Web site offered petitioners a script to use while soliciting signatures. The first three questions dealt with residency and voting status, and question four asked people whether they're for or against gay rights. Depending on their answer, petitioners were urged to respond as follows.

With folks who are for gay rights: "Great, by signing this referendum you give the voters of Maryland the opportunity to vote on the governor's Anti-discrimination Law for the 2002 election."

With folks who are undecided: "Great, by signing this petition, you give the voters of Maryland an opportunity to get better educated on the issue and a chance to decide how to vote on the 2002 ballot."

With folks who are against gay rights: "Great, by signing this referendum, you will first stop this bill from becoming law by October 1st and secondly will be placing it on the ballot for the 2002 election, so we as citizens can vote on it. Keep in mind, no pro-gay bill that has been placed on the ballot by referendum has ever won in America."

According to SBE, the group's approach is legal, as long as petitioners don't misrepresent facts. According to Humphreys, however, the message is misleading when directed at folks who aren't opposed to gay rights. He points to the script that was on the Web site that, he says, disappeared around the same time his organization began fielding complaints in early June from gay-rights supporters who had unwittingly signed the petition. And Donna Duncan, SBE's director of election management, confirms that she has received requests to have people's names removed.

"There is a provision in the election code that allows for an individual to submit a document in writing asking to have their name removed from the petition, and I have received several of those . . . approximately eight," Duncan says. "They say a variety of things, and in certain cases it indicates that they were misled."

Kerns could not be reached for comment by press time, but on June 14 he posted the following statement on TakeBackMaryland's Web site. "Our goal is simple, to have Maryland voters decide whether they agree with the homosexual agenda or not . . . We openly state that is our belief that SB 205 is a bad law which ultimately protects illegal and immoral behavior."

Humphreys doesn't expect to stop TakeBackMaryland from reaching its goal. "If history is any indicator, they shouldn't have a problem getting 46,000 signatures," he says. But in hopes of alerting people that they may have been misled and that they can remove their names from the petition, Free State Justice has contacted 6,000 people via mail and e-mail. Two national gay civil-rights organizations--the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force--are tapping their data bases as well.

Free State Justice does, however, expect to cripple TakeBackMaryland's referendum campaign should the issue make its way onto the 2002 ballot. They're meeting with local and national civil-rights groups now and studying other counties and states where campaigns opposing gay rights have been or are currently underway.

"I've seen it--I've seen a lot of commercials in Maine [where a gay-rights referendum campaign failed last year]--and it gets very dirty," Humphreys says, citing an ad used by anti-gay-rights advocates in which two flamboyant men were shown standing before a classroom of 5-year-olds teaching sex. "It's plain and simple. They're advocating for discrimination."

To remove a name from the petition, signers must send a written request to the State Board of Elections' Donna Duncan, to be received no later than June 30. Write the SBE at P.O. Box 6486, Annapolis, MD 21401-0486 or send e-mail to sep@elections.state.md.us.

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