November 5, 1995

After Bitter Debate on Gay Rights,
Maine Will Vote in Referendum on Discrimination

By David W. Dunlap
N.Y. Times

PORTLAND, Me. - The only statewide civil-rights referendum this year that affects homosexuals may be most important for what it does not mention: homosexuality.

On Tuesday, after a rancorous debate, Maine will become the latest state, and the first in the East, to vote on a ballot initiative that would both nullify and prohibit local laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination.

But the Maine initiative, Question 1, differs from those approved in Colorado and defeated in Oregon and Idaho since 1992. Instead of excluding homosexuals from protected status, Question 1 asks whether civil-rights safeguards should be conferred solely on the basis of certain characteristics. Sexual orientation is pointedly excluded from that list.

Supporters of Question 1 say this language reflects the fact that they are not trying to deprive lesbians and gay men of their constitutional rights, but rather seeking to limit the civil-rights umbrella to those readily identifiable groups that truly need protection.

Opponents say the formulation of Question 1 is meant to mask its inherently discriminatory intent and confuse voters, adding that it could be interpreted broadly to deny protection to other groups that are not enumerated, like hunters, whistle-blowers and people who make workers' compensation claims.

Both sides say the vote is likely to be close. More than 60,000 people signed the petition to put Question 1 on the ballot.

Whether it passes or not, Question 1 could be a precedent for initiatives around the nation. Colorado's 1992 measure never took effect as it was subject to an immediate legal challenge, which was heard last month by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Our initiative seeks to uphold and protect those disadvantaged groups that have already achieved minority status," said Carolyn H.T. Cosby, chairwoman of Concerned Maine Families and one of the authors of Question 1. "We're already talking to other states about following our model."

That worries Patricia A. Peard, chairwoman of Maine Won't Discriminate, a coalition opposing Question 1 that includes businesses, unions, religious organizations and elected officials, as well as lesbian and gay groups and AIDS groups.

"Maine is now the experiment for the radical right," Ms. Peard said. "What happens here is very important. If they're succesful in Maine, they'll do anything they can to export this."

National organizations have stepped in on both sides -- the Family Research Council, which is for Question 1, and the Human Rights Campaign, which is against it -- and each camp has accused the other of being unduly influenced by out-of-state forces.

Maine Won't Discriminate has raised about $1 million. Concerned Maine Families has raised $75,000 and the Coalition of End Special Rights, headed by Paul B. Madore of Lewiston, has raised $30,000.

The opponents say their experience shows they must outspend the supporters by a large margin to win. "It's evident from Colorado, Idaho and Oregon that our side has always been forced to raise 10 times the amount of money," Ms. Peard said.

Question 1 would limit the protected classifications in future laws to "race, color, sex, physical or mental disability, religion, age, ancestry, national origin, familial status and marital status." It would also repeal provisions in existing laws that protect homosexuals, specifically Portland's human-rights ordinance and a statewide hate-crimes statute.

"Homosexuals are protected against assault like any other Americans," Mrs. Cosby said in an interview. "Could they lose jobs? Could they be laid off unfairly? Yes. But the doors aren't consistently closed to homosexuals. Most of the doors are open to them."

In its campaign literature, Concerned Maine Families takes a blunter tone. "Stop Special 'Gay Rights' Status," is the headline of its latest eight-page flier, which says gay militants are seeking special job advantages for homosexuals.

Duane D. Fitzgerald, the president and chief executive of the Bath Iron Works shipbuilding company and an opponent of Question 1, said the special rights argument had an "Alice in Wonderland" quality since homosexuals could be dismissed almost anywhere in Maine "for a matter that has nothing to do with performance."

"I could call you into my office," he said, "and say, 'You've been an excellent employee, you've performed every task very well, but I'm terminating you because I understand you're gay.' And you would have no remedy at all." (As it happens, the Bath Iron Works has a nondiscrimination policy covering its 8,300 employees.)

It is difficult to document bias, said Jonathan Lee, an organizer working against Question 1 because victims are reluctant to make their case publicly for fear they will not easily get another job or lease.

Others object that Question 1 would tie the hands of municipalities. "Whether or not I agree with the ordinance established in the city of Portland," wrote Rep. James B. Longley Jr., a Republican, "I cannot quarrel with the right of the citizens of Portland to enact laws that they believe are in their best interest."

Other opponents of question 1 include Gov. Angus King, an independent, and Senators William S. Cohen and Olympia J. Snowe, both Republicans. Even the novelist Stephen King, who lives in Bangor, has joined the fray, saying that a yes vote would "go against everything I believe in."

But Mr. Madore is not intimidated by the list of opponents. "You're not going to win this by drawing up a supportive Who's Who," he said. His efforts two years ago to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Lewiston succeeded 68 to 32 percent, despite an array of well-known opponents.

He did concede that some supporters' campaign enthusiasm had been tempered when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland announced its opposition. The chancellor of the diocese, the Rev. Michael J. Henchal, wrote in The Church World newsletter on Oct. 19 that "this referendum is a nuclear bomb where a scalpel is neeed."

"It asks us to ban all new categories without our knowing what possible new categories we are banning," Father Henchal wrote. He made it plain nontheless that the church "will not support any legislation that implies an endorsement of homosexual behavior."

Supporters of Question 1 worry that anti-discrimination measures imply a condoning of homosexuality, [according to] the 98-year-old Christian Civic league of Maine, a Protestant group based in Augusta.

Its executive director, Michael S. Heath, said, "What's going on in America is less the creation of a society that enforces equality than the creation of a society where the lines regarding healthy and morally right behavior are being redrawn in ways that hurt people."

Mrs. Crosby has taken a different tack from religious conservatives. "They want o pomote a moral society," she said. "That's a worthy goal. They're opposed to homosexual practice. I am, as well. But I don't think it's my business to tell people how to lead their lives."

The nerve center of Concerned Maine Families is in Mrs. Crosby's basement. She is 44, grew up in South Portland and describes herself as a housewife, although she also ran unsuccesfully as a Republican candidate for the Portland City Council in 1992. J. David Crosby, her husband, is a marketing executive with the U.S. Postal Service.

Her counterpoint, Ms. Peard, 49, is a lawyer specializing in civil rights and First Amendment cases, at Bernstein Shur Sawyer & Nelson in Portland. She moved from New Hampshire in 1985 to attend the University of Maine School of Law and lives in Falmouth with her companion, Alice Brock, a history teacher.

At the Maine Won't Discriminate headquarters downtown, behind a storefront on Free Street, Ms. Peard is surrounded by dozens of volunteers who gather daily to work the makeshift telephone banks.

But Portland is not the only center of activity. Almost 300 miles to the northwest, in Caribou, a gay and lesbian group called Northern Lambda Nord has found that Question 1 is coalescing homosexual residents.

"They are starting to band together to support those of us who are out," said Sheila A. Everett, a Lambda steering committee member who lives in nearby Presque Isle. "It's strengthening us."

The campaign has not been without drawbacks. Neighbors who would wave a friendly greeting until two weeks ago now avert their eyes, Ms. Everett said. "And there's a nice big eggshell on my window," she said, "over my Vote No sign."