Technically, those who would overturn Maine's gay-rights law are off to a good start. They collected a mountain of signatures, more than 58,000, for their people's veto petitions; those signatures have withstood scrutiny by both the secretary of state and a Superior Court justice. The appropriate letters of the alphabet have been dotted and crossed, the ducks are queued up in an orderly fashion.
Now, with the referendum set for Feb. 10, comes the tough part. If the Christian Coalition and the Christian Civic League expect voters to scrap what was passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature and signed enthusiastically into law by the governor, they'll have to come up with better reasons than they have so far. At the very least, they need to get their story straight.
First off, there's the "special rights" claim. The new law, now on hold, merely adds sexual orientation to the list of factors--race, religion, national origin, disabilities--that one may not use to discriminate against another in matters of employment, housing, credit and public accommodations.
If the pending law would give homosexuals special rights, as the petitioners say, it follows that the existing law currently gives special rights to those already listed. If racial and religious minorities, immigrants and the handicapped are getting all the good jobs, the best apartments, low-interest loans and front-row seats, it's news to us. Until the Coalition and the League prove otherwise, their special rights argument is a canard and their choice of "Vote Yes for Equal Rights" as the name of their political action committee is the height of cynicism.
Then there's the question of whether this is a matter of secular or spiritual law, of whether the Legislature and the governor have done something the Almighty finds offensive. Ten other states have laws similar to the one hanging in limbo here. If 10 other state houses are subject to regular storms of brimstone and plagues of locusts, Maine voters have the right to know. Otherwise, it would be wise to leave God out of this. Century upon century of religious teachings have created a complex, often conflicting mix of precepts, subject to myriad interpretations. It's hard to know where to start when setting a moral compass, but "live and let live" seems as good a place as any.
Gay-rights supporters have reason for optimism: They beat back the "no special rights" argument in a 1995 referendum, albeit by a slim margin; 20 years of trying finally paid off in the Legislature last spring; and a poll released just before last month's election suggested that nearly two-thirds of Mainers are not inclined to overturn the new law. But they must guard against overconfidence. The odd timing of the single-issue vote will make voter turnout crucial and complacency fatal. They, too, must build their case of fact, not emotion. They must avoid falling into the trap of stereotyping those who question the law as right-wing neanderthals. And they must be prepared to describe the discrimination homosexuals face and how the laws in effect elsewhere have ensured equal rights without bestowing special ones.
The campaign is under way and it will be a long one. Whether Mainers are enlightened by fact during the next two months or repulsed by name-calling is in the hands of both sides, but most of the burden falls on the Coalition and the League. They, after all, want to void an act of the Legislature, they want to erase the governor's signature, and they must offer voters good reasons for doing so.
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