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Suit Over Berth for Drug Rehab Ship Draws to a Close in Federal Court

A lawsuit alleging that the Maryland Port Authority violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying a berth to a shipboard drug-abuse clinic for women is slated to go to a jury this morning. Project Life Inc. accuses state officials of refusing to sign a long-term lease at the state port facility at North Locust Point for the former U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USS Sanctuary, due to the concerns of other shipping tenants and Locust Point residents.“We all know that if you told a black family that they had to have ‘community support’ to move into an all-white residential development, that wouldn’t fly, legally,” Project Life attorney Reid H. Weingarten told the jury in his closing argument yesterday in Baltimore’s federal court.The group contends that the state discriminated against drug addicts by making a permanent berth conditional upon “community support” to operate a 300-bed treatment facility.“All [the state’s arguments] about the non-maritime use of the pier that hasn’t been used in 20 years doesn’t make a bit of sense,” Weingarten said, unless “they just didn’t want these women around.”Project Life President Stephen J. Hammer said that the case came down to “not in my back yard — the rest is the state’s smoke and mirrors.”But Assistant Attorney General Kathleen A. Morse took issue with these assessments.“Every time you heard ‘it couldn’t be clearer,’ take a close look at that evidence,” Morse cautioned jurors. “There’s nothing here about discrimination. There’s a political battle — and a political battle is not discrimination,” she said. “Project Life played the political card, which was fine. But when they lost the political battle, they sued,” Morse added. “It was coercion pure and simple: If you don’t give us a berth we’re going to sue.” Morse argued that the state’s denial of a berth had nothing to do with the prospective patients — although state officials knew that the clinic would bring drug abusers referred to it from the criminal justice system. “It’s about the ship, it’s not about the population” Morse said, focusing her arguments more on the perceived incompatibilities of trying to operate a permanently berthed residential vessel within the area of a working commercial port facility.“There was no discrimination against the program. There was discrimination against the ship. And there’s no law against discrimination against a ship,” Morse said.Morse also distinguished between drug addicts, who may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and drug dealers and thieves.“There are some incredibly frank statements in some of the documents [in evidence],” Morse said. “But in all of that, there’s not a statement that ‘We don’t want those people there because they’re drug addicts,’” she said.“There’s no law against discrimination against drug dealers. There’s no law against discrimination against thieves,” she told the jury.Weingarten called that argument “slicing the bologna a little too thin.”He asked the jury to look at the USS Sanctuary — a 753-foot, eight-deck vessel now docked at Pier 6 at North Locust Point — as a U.S. Navy ship with a mission.“There is an emergency, and you’ve got a Navy ship there to attend to it,” Weingarten said. “We are sick to death of fighting with the state over this. The real war is the war against addiction.”