Judge sides with state on challenge to anti-gay rights referendum
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Maine's new gay-rights law appears headed for a referendum after a judge indicated Friday he will uphold the validity of petitions collected by groups seeking to repeal the law.
Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Roland Cole put off a final judgment pending a hearing Monday on issues in the case that remain unresolved.
Cole said, however, that "in sum and substance," state election officials acted lawfully in their review of petitions collected by two conservative Christian groups in an attempt to block and eventually repeal the law.
Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky hailed the judge's conclusion as a vindication of the rigorous procedures followed by his office in scrutinizing petition signatures and averting voter fraud.
"We have said from day one that the petitioners had gathered more than enough signatures to send this issue to a statewide vote," he said.
Gwadosky noted only two of the 26 issues originally raised in the petition challenge were still outstanding.
"Those two issues represent no more than 800 petition signatures, and so there's no way that this can be turned over at this point in time," he said.
Cole's hearing Monday will focus on whether signatures should be deemed invalid if local registrars fail to circle a number corresponding to each name.
Gwadosky suggested that Gov. Angus King's office might act as early as next week in scheduling a referendum on the gay-rights law, which would likely take place in the early spring.
Earlier this month, voters in Washington State rejected workplace protections for gays.
Frank Brooks, one of the plaintiffs in the case brought by Maine Won't Discriminate, expressed disappointment at the decision and said lawyers for the gay rights group will consider whether to appeal it to the Supreme Judicial Court.
Brooks predicted his side would prevail at the ballot box, but said he hoped a referendum could have been avoided.
"It's a sad day that we have to again face an election that will be expensive, be painful to many thousands of Maine citizens (and) increase hostility towards sexual minorities," he said.
Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine and one of the leaders of the petition effort, said he felt the whole time that the lawsuit was "based on pretty thin arguments, and the judge agreed with us."
"My sense is a lot of folks in Maine are going to be interested in trying to understand this issue better as it moves towards a vote," Heath said. "We are going to have to talk about this issue of gay rights and homosexuality and human sexuality. What the outcome's going to be, I don't dare predict."
At issue is a pending law passed by the Legislature last spring and signed by Gov. Angus King that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in jobs, housing, credit and public accommodations.
Gwadosky declared on Oct. 20 that the Christian Coalition of Maine and the Christian Civic League of Maine had collected enough signatures to block implementation of the law and force a referendum on whether to repeal it.
Gay rights advocates argued that the referendum should be cancelled because of numerous flaws in the petitions filed. The groups seeking repeal maintain that the legal challenges are based on mere technicalities.
Defenders of the law asserted that repeal forces illegally began to circulate their petitions before lawmakers who enacted the measure had adjourned for the year.
The plaintiffs also claimed that more than 10,000 petition signatures should be invalidated because some of the petitions were improperly notarized.
The two Christian groups collected more than 65,000 signatures over the summer. After reviewing the petitions, Gwadosky cleared 58,182 as valid - 7,051 more than needed.
At a hearing earlier this week, plaintiffs urged Cole to shrug off suggestions that alleged missteps and irregularities were not sufficient cause to warrant the invalidation of all or some of the signatures.
But a lawyer for the state said the challengers to the petitions were demanding "a standard of technical perfection" not required by the state Constitution.
The Maine GayNet Archive