Maine GayNet - Gay rights debate likely to be hot one

September 20,1997
Sun Journal Staff Writer

LEWISTON - Rights and wrongs likely will play less of a role in the upcoming and ongoing debate over homosexuality in Maine than special rights versus civil rights.

Two Maine political analysts agreed Friday that voters will be tugged from one argument to the other in what is probably going to be a fierce and, perhaps, nasty new campaign over the state's suspended "gay rights" legislation.

"The morality question is a little bit tricky," says Bates College political scientist Douglas Hodgkin, "because (Americans) do have this deepeated feeling about separation of church and state and a commonly held belief that we should not and cannot legislate morality."

"If you can make it an issue of individual rights, that's a better argument than saying the state should not pass legislation (protecting gays) because it's morally wrong," Hodgkin says.

On Thursday, two Christian groups filed about 59,000 petition signatures calling for a "people's veto" of the state's new anti-discrimination law. The law, scheduled to take effect Friday, was stayed by Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky until his staff can determine if enough of the signatures are valid.

If so,Gov Angus King must call a special election to consider a veto of the new law. The Constitution says King must wait at least 60 days from the time Gwadosky verifies the signatures but not more than six months to hold the election.

Deja vu

The latest controversy over gay rights only seems like a replay of the 1995 Question 1 referendum vote. Then, Mainers rejected a proposal that would have prohibited cities and towns from passing local gay rights measures.

In that debate, gay rights supporters called themselves Maine Won't Discriminate, but they really focused as much on the issue of taking away local control - which sells well in the state - as about the need to protect gays from discrimination.

They won the election by about 6 percentage points.

Gay rights opponents think there's a terrific difference between telling communities they can't pass gay rights bills and the state telling them they must honor the version it passed.

Both sides predict victory if the veto question is sent to the people, which appears likely this week. "I really doubt the majority of Maine people will buy the morality argument," says Christopher Potholm, a political science professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and a political adviser. "...I think the (morality argument) will make the campaign more nasty, but not more effective."

What's left?

The Christian Civic League of Maine, the lead organization collecting signatures for the veto drive, says the new campaign will have two keystones: "special rights" and morality.

And while the political analysts agree that the high moral ground is littered with land mines, league Executive Director Michael Heath says Christians have no choice. "I don't think it's possible for the nation or state to understand this issue apart from a fair and meaningful understanding of biblical morality," he says.

But Heath's group and other avid supporters of a veto are expected to to focus more on the "special rights" argumen

t, the analysts predict. That's because while many Mainers may oppose discrimination, they also don't favor giving people a legal edge if they really don't need it. "They will argue that there will be a lot of people seeking special protections they don't deserve," says Hodgkin.

The successful repeal of Lewiston's anti-discrimination ordinance in 1993 turned on the "Stop Special Rights" campaign. Supporters of the repeal won in a landslide. In the statewide Question 1 debate two years ago, Carolyn Cosby's Concerned Maine Families used the same tact - almost to victory. Cosby was quoted this week as advising Heath and others to prey on Mainers' fears that gays will get special rights under the new state law, such as declaring homosexuality to get an edge over other people for jobs.

"It's the same issue it's always been," Cosby says. "This is about whether we're going to give special status and thereby give job advantages to anyone who's willing to proclaim their homosexuality." Says Potholm, "I think (Cosby) was dead right. I think the morality issue will backfire completely."

Gay-rights opponents say homosexuals don't need a law protecting them from discrimination because they don't suffer the same hardships and prejudice faced by other groups protected on the basis of religion, race, ancestry, color, national origin or physical and mental handicap.

Meanwhile, gay-rights advocates will argue that gay men and women deserve equal treatment and protection from discrimination and that history, including recent history, substantiates that homosexuals are treated differently because of their sexual orientation.

If a gay man applies for a loan, it should be illegal for a bank or credit union to turn him down based on his sexual orientation, they argue. If he's not creditorthy, that's another matter, they say.

Betsy Smith, president of the Maine Gay and Lesbian Political Alliance, thinks Heath and other veto supporters will rely on the "special rights" argument because "they don't have anything else to fall back on. It's their silver bullet " and it's an effective one. "Will they continue to lie to the people? I believe they will continue to lie to the people," Smith says.

An emotional debate

No one questions that the new debate will be emotional and exhausting for both sides. That's been the outcome of every debate in Maine over gay rights in 20 years.

As Hodgkin put it, "It will be very controversial and very emotional, and you'll get a lot of hot rhetoric, not necessarily from the leaders of the respective sides, but from their highly'emotional followers." But Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Gov. King, warns that King won't sit idly by if veto supporters misrepresent what he sees as the fundamental issues of the debate.

"If in fact this campaign does descend into the low road, you can bet the governor will step in and point out where the facts and inaccuracies really are," Bailey said. Hodgkin thinks if King plays a major role in the campaign, even as a fact-checker, it will raise the visibility of the debate and likely the turnout for the one-issue special election.

King has been a strong supporter of gay rights and was disappointed the veto effort was as successful as it appears.

"This group is within its rights to do what they're doing, and we have to respect that and have a fair vote on the issue," Bailey said. "But our position is that it's unnecessary and unfortunate, and it's too bad to have to go through it again."

Hodgkin gives the Christian groups the early edge in campaign organization because they've already run a statewide campaign for signatures and because they have an up-and-running network of volunteers and supporters. But he gives the gay-rights advocates the financial advantage, figuring that with Maine's moderate record on social issues, national conservative groups will be less willing to pour a lot of money into the state.

Meanwhile, "the pro-gay rights forces would see Maine as a must- win state because of its reputation as a moderate, tolerant state on these issues, and to lose here would have repercussions nationally Hodgkin says.

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