Maine GayNet - Judge hears challenge to anti-gay rights referendum

Wednesday November 19, 1997

Judge hears challenge to anti-gay rights referendum

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A ruling is expected by week's end from a Superior Court judge who heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by defenders of Maine's gay rights law.

The plaintiffs are challenging the validity of thousands of petition signatures filed by opponents who want to repeal the measure.

Justice Roland Cole said Tuesday he planned to issue a ruling Friday on half a dozen legal issues raised by the plaintiffs.

Advocates for repeal of the gay rights statute maintain that the challenges are based on mere technicalities.

Tuesday's hearing was the opening skirmish in what is expected to be a protracted legal battle, regardless of Cole's ultimate decision.

Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky declared on Oct. 20 that enough petition signatures had been gathered in a drive sponsored by the Christian Coalition of Maine and the Christian Civic League of Maine to force a referendum on repeal.

Gay rights advocates argue that the referendum should be cancelled because of numerous flaws in the petitions filed.

The Legislature approved the gay rights bill last spring, capping a 20-year effort by supporters, and Gov. Angus King signed it.

But the law has yet to take effect, because of the referendum proposal.

Key issues presented to Cole include a complaint by defenders of the gay rights law that advocates of repeal illegally began to circulate their petitions before lawmakers who enacted the measure had adjourned for the year.

The plaintiffs also assert that more than 10,000 petition signatures should be invalidated because some of the petitions were improperly notarized.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs urged Cole to shrug off suggestions that alleged missteps and irregularities in the collection of petition signatures were not substantial enough to warrant the invalidation of all or some of the signatures.

"We are not urging hypertechnicality on this court. ... That's the law," said Patricia Peard.

But Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner, representing the secretary of state in defense of his decision to call for a referendum, said the pro-gay rights challengers were demanding "a standard of technical perfection" not required by the state Constitution.

Gardiner said there was no need for advocates of repeal to wait for the Legislature to adjourn before beginning to collect signatures.

She also said there was no need for notaries to enter the expiration dates of their commissions on petition forms, because state elections officials could check their status themselves.

The two conservative Christian groups collected more than 65,000 signatures over the summer to block the new law from taking effect until a statewide election can be held. After reviewing the petitions, Gwadosky cleared 58,182 as valid - 7,051 more than needed.

The pending gay rights law would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in jobs, housing, credit and public accommodations.

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