AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Backed by legislative supporters of the present and flanked by legislative sponsors from the past, Gov. Angus King signed a bill Friday extending civil rights protection to gays and lesbians in Maine.
``It is not special rights,'' King said. ``What we are talking about here are the most basic rights that all of us take for granted.''
King's action in a ceremony in the State House Hall of Flags, concluding a two-decade push for passage, was cheered by scores of onlookers, many sporting pink carnations.
King called the occasion ``a historic day for a vigorous and self-confident society.''
Anticipating a potential referendum challenge to the pending law, King urged those with qualms about the measure to view it as a matter of fairness.
``We have enemies in Maine. They are poverty, disease, ignorance. They are not gay people,'' said King, a political independent.
The governor urged ``those who are worried, who are uneasy'' to ``join us in making Maine the best society we together can create.''
The law would extend protections provided by the Maine Human Rights Act by prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which hailed the enactment of the measure, Maine became the tenth state to adopt a civil rights law covering homosexuals.
New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is expected to sign a similar bill soon.
On Tuesday, the Christian Civic League of Maine told state elections officials it intends to launch a ``people's veto'' campaign to block the anti-discrimination bill.
The Christian Coalition said it was joining forces with the civic league to bring about a referendum. The groups, pledging to run an ``honorable and positive'' repeal effort, claim to have thousands of supporters,
Another group that opposed the legislation, known as Concerned Maine Families, has scheduled its own news conference at the Secretary of State's Office on Monday.
If opponents gather 51,131 voters' signatures by 90 days after the legislative session ends and elections officials certify the signatures as valid, a referendum on the pending law must be scheduled.
In 1995, Maine voters rejected a ballot question to restrict gay rights. The measure initiated by Concerned Maine Families was turned down, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance said the potential for another referendum campaign over gay rights tempered Friday's celebration.
``What I'd most like to see happen is have this conversation revolve around the issue of fairness - how you're going to get treated,'' she said. ``I worry about whether or not the conversation can be contained.''
State Treasurer Dale McCormick, a longtime gay rights activist and former Democratic legislator, hugged King after he signed the bill and exultantly clutched her hands over her head.
``Freedom is a long time coming,'' she said afterwards. ``I was moved to tears when I saw the governor sign the bill.''
The Legislature first passed a gay rights bill four years ago, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. John McKernan.
Last week, Maine lawmakers approved the measure again, voting in favor of it by 28-5 in the Senate and 84-61 in the House of Representatives.
Other states with gay rights laws include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin, according to the ACLU.
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