Friday, February 6, 1998


By Susan Kinzie, Of the NEWS Staff --

AUGUSTA - Hundreds of opponents of gay rights got on their knees on the tile floor of the State House on Thursday as Alveda King prayed to God and sang, lifting her eyes to heaven and smiling.

Behind the niece of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a woman stood in silent protest of the "equal rights rally" held by conservative opponents of the gay rights law passed last spring. State Treasurer and longtime gay rights supporter Dale McCormick kept her lips pressed tightly together as she held a green "Maine Won't Discriminate" sign.

King said the referendum Feb. 10, which asks voters to repeal the law making discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, is not a civil rights issue. Remembering her childhood in Birmingham, Ala., as a victim of racial intolerance, and her young adulthood as an activist against that intolerance, she said, "I was in the house," when it was firebombed. "I have faced guards and guns and billy clubs. I have been the victim of hate crimes."

Gay people choose their sexual behavior, she said, so their struggle for rights has nothing to do with racial struggles. "God hates racism and God hates homosexuality," she said firmly, and people in the crowd called out "Amen."

King said, "I'm not here to fight or fuss or argue with you, just extend the love of God to you all," smiling warmly at the crowd, with a bright yellow "vote yes" sticker on her pinstriped suit.

And so with words of love and togetherness, though faces showed anger and frustration as well, people from all over the state gathered to hear speakers from all over the country who oppose gay rights.

Paul Nagy, the Northeast regional coordinator for the Christian Coalition, said that this referendum campaign has been a David vs. Goliath struggle - against the wishes of the Legislature, the governor, and with a lot less money than the other side has been able to raise. But now, he said, raising his voice to a shout, "David has found the rock - he's put it in the slingshot and," as the crowd roared with approval, "look out, because it's coming!"

With help from national conservative religious organizations coming in at the last minute - such as speakers paid for by American Renewal of Washington, D.C. - the campaign by the Christian Coalition of Maine and the Christian Civic League of Maine has dramatically changed. While the coalition supporting the law has been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it from donors nationwide, opponents of the law had been relying on a few thousand dollars from donors in the state.

But two political action committees raising money for the two Christian groups reported contributions through Jan. 29 of about $90,000 and nearly $7,000. And in the first few days of February, the groups reported spending nearly $40,000 for advertising.

On Thursday, there were speakers from Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. The executive director of the Christian Coalition, Randy Tate, tried to fly in from Virginia but had to cancel because of the weather.

When asked who paid for her visit, King said, "Let's just say the Lord provides." Keith Boykin, the executive director of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., laughed bitterly and said, "James Dobson provides." He was referring to the president of Focus on the Family, a conservative group based in Colorado. Dobson has sent letters to people in Maine about the referendum.

Boykin said, "I believe she is being paid and very well compensated by the religious right for spewing this anti-gay rhetoric. She's definitely in their pocket." A spokesman for Focus on the Family said that the group had not paid for King's trip.

Michael Heath and Paul Volle, the executive directors of the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine respectively, were not available Thursday evening to answer questions about King's visit.

Boykin also said, "The civil rights struggle and the struggle for lesbian and gay rights are not the same. But at the same time, nobody should be mistreated or discriminated against. There's no law that says you have to be as bad off as black people in order to get the protection of the law."

Sen. John Jenkins, D-Lewiston, who like Alveda King grew up in the family of a black Baptist preacher, said, "Maine people don't take too kindly to people coming from away and telling them what to do. They're not stupid - they know what's best for them - and they elect people who want what's best for them."

He did not agree with King, pointing out that her aunt, Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., has supported gay rights, saying, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Jenkins met the civil rights leader when he was a high school student.

"I get troubled by these things when people wrap themselves in Christian cloth, saying 'We're right and we're better. ... It's O.K. to hate, but we preach love."' The way he understands religion, he said, "is one word - love. They didn't say, 'Love thy neighbors who happen to be straight.' It's love. It's so straightforward."

The word "love" was used often during the rally, repeated by the hundreds of volunteers who have worked since the law was signed by the governor last spring to bring the question back to the people. People talked about loving gay people enough to help them. People talked about the love of Jesus giving them the courage to stop acting on homosexual urges. People talked about loving their children and needing to protect them from molestation.

And people also talked about rights. Rep. Adam Mack, R-Standish, who helped form a new political action committee to oppose the law, said, "This law will criminalize religious and moral beliefs." Stephen Whiting, a Portland lawyer, spoke about issues of "reverse discrimination" - discrimination against people who are opposed to homosexuality - that he has seen because of Portland's gay rights ordinance.

King said, "I think all people are unfairly treated at times. I've been mistreated because I'm overweight - denied jobs, told I'd be pretty if I lost weight." But she has not asked for special protections because of her weight, she said.

Many of the speakers were not from Maine, but the hundreds of people, old and young, who crowded into the Hall of Flags to hear them certainly were. The Rev. Kenneth MacDonald of Lisbon Falls held a well-worn Bible, each page marked with extensive notes and underlinings, and said, "There's enough laws on the books to protect them." Erika Olson got up at 5:30 in the morning to drive from Presque Isle with her grandfather. Blue "Vote yes for the people's veto" signs filled the air, children sat quietly through the speeches, and adults shouted encouragement or angry questions about the governor and gay activists.

Rep. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Portland, one of several legislators who stood with "Maine Won't Discriminate" signs at the far edge of the crowd, said, "It's upsetting that they can get so many people. There was quite a bit of hostility in the name of love and religion."

Rep. Michael Quint, D-Portland, who was with Mitchell, said, "Clearly there are some people who believe it's OK to discriminate based on moral judgments. The energy in that room was very different from the energy when the bill was signed. Fear - fear of the unknown," he said.

Whatever the energy was, fear or love, it seemed sure to be energy pushing people to get to the polls and spread their message. Heath of the Christian Civic League said, "This truly is something that has happened because of you - not because of money, not because of popularity, not because of power, but because of you. So go back to your communities," he said.

The crowd shouted "Vote yes! Vote yes! Vote yes! Vote yes!" over and over again, the sound filling the Hall of Flags.

"As you are considering and prayerfully deciding whether to vote yes or vote no - think about what God wants," King said and smiled.

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