PORTLAND, Maine (Reuters) - The national battle over gay rights has shifted to Maine where voters are being asked to bar local communities from extending civil rights protection to homosexuals.
The debate over an anti-gay rights referendum has pitted civil rights advocates and the state's business community against two groups of religious conservatives, which have spent much of the campaign fighting each other.
Despite the split among supporters of the ban on extending homosexual rights and an overwhelming fund-raising advantage for opponents, opinion polls show the race is a dead heat before next month's vote.
Supporters argue the measure is needed to stop homosexuals gaining "special rights." It would overturn gay rights ordinances in Portland and the small island town of Long Island and prevent other communities from extending civil rights to new "protected classes."
"This initiative does not hurt gay people," Carolyn Cosby, chairwoman of Concerned Maine Families, asserted in a recent public debate.
Opponents contend that if the referendum passes it will promote discrimination, unintentionally strike down laws that help veterans and create economic problems for the state by tarnishing its public image. Passage of similar legislation in Colorado led to a boycott of the state by some organizations.
"The last thing we need is a national story that says Maine discriminates or Maine legalizes discrimination," said Gov. Angus King, who has campaigned against the move with a group called Maine Won't Discriminate.
Maine is the fourth American state to vote on an anti-gay rights referendum in recent years and the only state voting on such a measure in the coming election.
The U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating whether an amendment approved by Colorado voters in 1992 to bar local gay rights laws in that state violates the constitutional right to equal protection. The backers of Maine's measure said it was written to avoid Colorado's legal weakness by not mentioning sexual preference in its wording and by not making it as difficult for voters to change in the future.
"I think the court will throw out the Colorado initiative, but I think that leaves the Maine initiative wholly and completely constitutionally unimpaired," said Bruce Fine, an attorney with Concerned Maine Families.
The group has been feuding with another pro-referendum group called Coalition to End Special Rights over the latter's focus on the morality of homosexuality as a campaign issue. Concerned Maine Families charges this issue adds unneeded bitterness to the campaign.
Maine Won't Discriminate has vowed to take the measure to court if voters approve the referendum next month.
Although Colorado's measure was approved, voters in Oregon turned down similar initiatives in 1992 and 1994, as did Idaho in 1994.
The outcome in Maine could hinge on whether voters view the measure as discriminatory or just as disapproving of homosexuals, according to Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch.
"The contrast between Oregon and Colorado is that the average voter in the middle of the electorate in Colorado perceived it as a vote of general disapproval and so it passed," Lunch said.
The Maine Legislature has turned down several attempts to pass statewide gay rights legislation over the past 20 years, but by a smaller margin each time. Lawmakers are scheduled to debate such a measure again next year.
The legislature will not be barred from enacting a state gay rights law if the referendum passes, but the measure's supporters say a yes vote in November will send a clear signal to the lawmakers.