Massachusetts lawmakers will soon begin debating a bill which would give gay people the same legal protection now accorded women, the disabled, Blacks, and other minorities.
The proposed law, which amends the State Civil Rights Code, would make it illegal for landlords, employers and creditors to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation--whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.
"Regardless of whether it gets a favorable report (from the committee), it will be debated before the first of May," said Representative Thomas Vallely (D-South End), the bill's sponsor. Vallely explained that although the Committee on Commerce and Labor remains divided over whether to recommend the bill it will probably reach the floor of the chamber because of its controversial nature.
The bill has drawn fire from a coalition of critics including evangelicals who say it would loosen the commonwealth's sexual mores and property owners who say the measure would infringe on their rights.
Defenders of the proposed law mean-while portray the issue as a civil rights question.
"This is a fair employment practices and civil rights bill--not a sexual preference bill," explained Robert P. Wheatly, Unitarian Universalist Church minister who supports the bill.
"We've taken a firm position in favor of the bill because it's an issue of basic civil rights," agreed John L. LaCrox of Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn's office.
He added that Flynn has distributed policy statements to all city departments stressing the need for non-discrimination based on one's sexual preference.
But some critics charge that it would violate the rights of more people than it would help.
"It's just as discriminatory to tell a landlord who he can let live on his property--that's my pragmatic objection," said Representative and committee member Marie J. Parente (D-Milford).
Long-time advocates of gay rights said the climate has gotten progressively more liberal where homosexuality is concerned, but worry about the effect the resurgence of fundamentalist religion could have on this year's debate.
Similar bills have been introduced for 11 consecutive years, but this is "the first time the New Right showed up," said Benjamin H. Schatz '81, a second-year Harvard Law School student who heads the Massachusetts Gay Political Caucus' lobbying effort.
"It's addressed in the Bible; homosexuality is a sin and all kinds of bad things can happen to a nation and people when they officially condone it," said Sharon L. Gurney, one of the fundamentalists who testified against the bill.
But Wheatly said that the Christian argument goes both ways. "There are no words from Jesus on the subject (of homosexuality)," said Wheatly. "Jesus said we should love one another no matter what our differences," he added.
Schatz estimated that 10 percent of the state's population is gay or lesbian.
If the bill passes, campus activists say it could have an effect on Harvard's gay and lesbian community.
"This bill could cause the University to re-examine its own policies and make sure they comply," said Gay and Lesbian Students Association President Jake Stevens '86.
Stevens added that so far the College has "refused to say. Specifically, it doesn't discriminate against gay people because it doesn't have to by law."