Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Judge: Transgender law repeal will go before the voters

Opponents of referendum appeal the decision

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A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge is allowing voters to decide if a county law banning discrimination against transgendered people should be repealed.

In a 25-page opinion issued Thursday, Judge Robert A. Greenberg said advocates for the legislation were too late in challenging the signatures collected by Citizens for Responsible Government and certified by the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

On Monday, Equality Maryland, a gay rights advocacy group that is challenging the repeal effort, filed an appeal in the Court of Special Appeals.

‘‘We’re disappointed, but the court concluded that we were right but were too late in filing,” said Jonathan S. Shurberg, an attorney for Equality Maryland. ‘‘If I didn’t think we had a strong chance to win, I wouldn’t recommend to my client that we appeal.”

Shurberg plans to request a review by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. If the review is denied, he will ask for an expedited review by the Special Appeals court before the Aug. 18 deadline for ballot changes.

An attorney representing the county elections board could not be reached for comment.

‘‘In America, every citizen’s voice counts and the court affirmed that today,” said Amy Smith, litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian nonprofit representing CRG.

‘‘The political agenda of an activist group cannot be allowed to disenfranchise the voters of an entire county,” she said. ‘‘The referendum simply allows the people of Montgomery County to decide the issue, but apparently Equality Maryland doesn’t want the people to be heard.”

At the heart of the debate is a 2007 law that prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals in housing, employment, cable television service and transportation.

‘‘I am clearly disappointed, but I think there may be an opportunity in another court level to see another ruling that is perhaps more favorable to my side,” said the law’s sponsor, County Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda. ‘‘If indeed the referendum makes its way on the ballot, then I am still quite confident the voters of Montgomery County will reject discrimination.”

The law was to have taken effect in February, but was interrupted by CRG’s challenge. The critics argue the law would allow men dressed as women access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. CRG collected thousands of signatures for a referendum.

Attorneys representing Equality Maryland and others say the state Board of Elections erred in certifying the signatures. The elections board had told the critics that they needed 5 percent of active voters to place the repeal on the November ballot instead of 5 percent of all registered voters.

Equality Maryland also claims many of the signatures appear to be signed by the petition taker, have incomplete information and include people not registered to vote.

‘‘For me, this means that as of this moment I am still without any federal, state or county legislative or civil rights protections as a county resident,” said Maryanne A. Arnow, a transgendered woman in Germantown. ‘‘I will also have to endure a continued campaign of stereotypical misinformation that has been previously provided by opponents of this bill.”

Equality Maryland has spent more than $80,000 in court costs, attorney fees and staff costs challenging the signatures and the referendum. ‘‘Now, we must spend far more than we ever imagined defending our rights,” Dan Furmansky, the organization’s executive director, told supporters in a fundraising appeal on Monday.

‘‘The goal is to minimize any additional legal fees and focus on educational components of the campaign ahead of us,” he said this week. ‘‘Regardless of how this plays out in the court, this is an opportunity to demystify transgender issues in a welcoming jurisdiction like Montgomery County. A campaign like this is a costly endeavor.”