Monday February 9, 1998


AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - It took 20 years of trying before gay rights advocates won passage of a law last spring adding sexual orientation to the list of protected categories in Maine's Human Rights Act.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to uphold a "people's veto" of the new law - a petition bearing more than 58,000 signatures opposing the measure.

An independent statewide poll last month found close to two-thirds support for the law among Maine voters. But because the issue is the only one on the ballot in a special midwinter election, a low turnout could sway the outcome.

"People need to vote," says state Rep. Michael Quint, a Democrat from Portland who is gay. "We need to clearly send a message once and for all and defeat this referendum."

After the petition drew enough signatures to call the referendum, the gay rights law was put on hold in September just one day before it was to take effect.

The repeal campaign, led by an alliance of the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine, says the legislation is unnecessary, bestows special rights on an undeserving group, and would undermine traditional societal values and morality.

"Discrimination is not necessarily a bad thing, the concept of discrimination," civic league director Michael Heath said during a radio call-in show. "It's appropriate to discriminate against wrongdoing."

Countering Heath's view, Gov. Angus King asserts in campaign commercials that "Maine is a big small town" requiring tolerance.

"It's not my place to tell you how to vote but it just strikes me as wrong that somebody should lose their job because they're gay," said King, a popular political independent who serves as chief spokesman for the anti-repeal forces organized as Maine Won't Discriminate.

The 25-year-old Maine Human Rights Act bars discrimination against various classifications of people in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit. Among its classifications are race, color, sex, religion, national origin and physical or mental disability.

"It does not extend special rights. It does not require quotas," says Patricia Ryan, the director of the Maine Human Rights Commission which administers the law.

But for some repeal advocates, the issue goes far beyond the legal provisions of the human rights act.

Some say it could mean employers would lose freedom in hiring and firing, or that property owners with religious or moral convictions against gay behavior would no longer be able to choose their tenants.

"The way I read it, if this isn't rejected, I'm not going to have a say in anything that goes on," said Howard Betts, 73, of Readfield. "Actually I'm going to lose some of my rights."

"Do they need special rights? They've got all the rights the rest of us have got," Betts said.

And some claim there is a hidden agenda, that gay rights could lead to gay marriages, or force Christian schools to teach diversity on issues they oppose.

"All we're doing is giving them special rights," Shirley Carman, 60, of Buxton, said at one pro-repeal rally.

"I mean, I would never hurt these people. And what they do in their bedroom is their own business. But they're not going to teach it to my family or my kids," she said.

Carman added: "And these gay people, it's their fault that they're gay. So it wasn't God's will."

Ten states have gay-rights statutes, including Maine's five neighbors in New England. Maine's largest city, Portland, has had an infrequently invoked gay-rights ordinance since 1992. A similar ordinance adopted in Lewiston in 1993 was overturned by voters.

Since October 1992, according to the Maine attorney general's office, about one-quarter of the more than 960 bias complaints it received involved sexual orientation.

Through Jan. 29, Maine Won't Discriminate reported raising more than $416,000 to finance its campaign, about four times more than was reported by the repeal organizations.

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