AUGUSTA - After an emotional three-hour debate, the Maine House voted 84-61 Thursday night for a bill prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals.
After the vote, the House batted away several amendments that could have softened the impact of the bill. The amendments included several conditions proposed by the Roman Catholic diocese of Portland and a proposed exclusion for businesses with five or fewer employees.
The bill had won a resounding 28-5 vote in the Senate one day earlier. Independent Gov. Angus S. King has promised he'll sign the gay rights bill into law if it reaches his desk.
The measure still needs final votes of approval in both the House and Senate.
After the vote, gay activists and their supporters gathered outside the door to the House and loudly cheered and applauded departing legislators who supported them.
"It feels like a long time coming,'' said Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance. "It's extremely satisfying. We certainly hope this strong vote in both bodies sends the message that Maine is ready to move beyond discriminating against gay men and lesbians.''
Carolyn Cosby, leader of Concerned Maine Families, which opposes gay rights, said, "I was stunned to hear the number of legislators who said they would be voting against their own constituents. This is going to give special rights to anyone who even claims to be gay.''
Cosby said it is "very likely'' that her group will seek a referendum on gay rights if the measure becomes law.
During House debate, supporters said it was time for Maine to approve a civil rights bill prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit.
This is the 10th time in 20 years that the gay rights bill has been before the Legislature. The last time was in 1993, when the measure was approved by the House and Senate but vetoed by then-Gov. John R. McKernan.
Opponents said the bill was unnecessary and would grant special rights to gays, rights based on behavior unlike other constitutionally protected categories like age, gender and race.
Rep. G. Paul Waterhouse, R-Bridgton, scoffed at gay activists who say discrimination against gays and lesbians is a legitimate problem.
"I'm not saying it doesn't happen,'' said Waterhouse. "But I've never heard of it in my life. This issue doesn't rise to the occasion. I can't imagine anyone getting rid of a good worker or a good renter or a good risk for a loan just because they were gay.
"I've never heard of a gay person losing a job, or losing a place to live in my community,'' he said.
Rep. Richard Thompson, D-Naples, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which split 8-5 for the gay rights bill, said, "There is discrimination against gays and lesbians in Maine. If you live in a place where you don't witness it, then you're a lucky person.''
Thompson noted that he had discriminated against gays when he taunted boys suspected of being homosexual when he was a child, and as an adult, when he told jokes making fun of homosexuals.
Rep. Priscilla Lane, R-Enfield, said, "We all wish we could have legislation that would make hate go away. I don't think we should grant rights based on behavior.''
Lane said there should be a referendum to settle the question of gay rights "once and for all.''
Rep. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, an opponent of gay rights, said the Legislature practices a form of political discrimination when it hands out jobs to members of the majority party and denies them to the minority party.
Plowman said she'd been called a "dirty Republican'' and asked to leave a store because of her political affiliation.
Rep. Michael Quint, D-Portland, a legislator who is gay, said, "Discrimination happens every single day. I know it because I have seen it, I have experienced it and I carry with me the fear that it will happen again.''
Quint said some gay people are reluctant to report harassment incidents, which are illegal, for fear they might lose a job or apartment if it were known they were gay.
Rep. Joseph Jabar, D-Waterville, said, "We must end discrimination because it is the right thing to do. It is time to lead. It is time to tell our constituents why we did the right thing. It is now time to end this intolerance, this hatred of gays and lesbians.
"We are an open, tolerant and enlightened society,'' he said. "What are we afraid of?''
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After the vote, gay activists and supporters gathered outside the door to the House loudly cheering and applauding departing legislators who supported them. "It feels like a long time coming,'' said Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance. "It's extremely satisfying. We certainly hope this strong vote in both bodies sends the message that Maine is ready to move beyond discriminating against gay men and lesbians.''