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Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Gay Rights Measure Passes House

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE A proposal to outlaw discrimination based upon sexual orientation was approved by the House on Monday; supporters say they are hopeful the measure will be enacted this year.
    It was the first time the proposal had passed the House despite more than a decade of debate over whether New Mexico should extend anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.
    "It's 2003; we shouldn't be discriminating against anyone, anywhere, any time," said Rep. Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill.
    The legislation will broaden the state's Human Rights Act to cover sexual orientation, making it illegal to discriminate on that basis in matters of employment, housing, credit, public accommodations and union membership. It will apply equally to heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.
    The bill passed the House 39-27 and goes to the Senate.
    Linda Siegle of the Coalition for Equality in New Mexico said she was confident the Senate will approve the measure. Gov. Bill Richardson has pledged to sign the bill into law.
    In 2001, the bill was rejected by the House 35-31.
    Siegle said Richardson's support and changes in House membership helped in winning approval of the bill. Supporters also more aggressively lobbied for the legislation, which was first offered in 1991.
    "Legislators in the past have said, 'I don't have any gay constituents in my district.' I'll bet there wasn't a legislator who didn't have many gay constituents calling them," Siegle said.
    Supporters said the legislation was needed because it is legal to refuse to hire someone or to fire someone from a job because he or she is gay.
    Opponents said the anti-discrimination proposal could unleash a flood of lawsuits. They also objected that the measure will cover instances when people are discriminated against because of the perception they are homosexual, even if they aren't.
    "I feel we're treading on some very thin ice when we start saying that we're going to hold people accountable for what we think they think about someone else," said Rep. Dan Foley, R-Roswell.
    Rep. W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said similar arguments had been used against civil rights laws for decades.
    "I would say to anybody who has suffered any form of discrimination, it's not because of who you are but who you are perceived to be," Martinez said. "When they discriminate against you based upon race, it's not because of who you are, but what someone is perceiving you to be as a result of your race."
    Thirteen states and the District of Columbia include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination laws, Beam said. Religious institutions are exempted from the nondiscrimination requirements. Supporters say the measure will not force employers to implement quotas based on sexual orientation.