Gay Rights Bill Debate Resurfaces
Sentinel, February 27, 2005
By Susan M. Cover, Staff Writer
AUGUSTA—When Gov. Angus S. King
Jr. signed a bill in 1997 to include gays and lesbians in the Maine Human
Rights Act, gay rights activists rejoiced.
After 20 years of working to get the bill passed, they
felt they had finally won a hard fought victory. Gays and lesbians could no
longer be discriminated against in employment, housing, public accommodations
“We certainly did have a celebration worthy of 20 years
of effort,” said Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, the
state’s gay- and lesbian-rights group. “It felt like—wow, victory, after
20 years of this fight.”
The Christian Civic League of Maine had a very different
Executive Director Michael Heath said he doesn’t
remember the day the bill was signed—only the work that went into gathering
the more than 50,000 signatures needed to overturn the law using a seldom-used
provision in the Maine Constitution—the “people’s veto.”
Prior to 1998, the people’s veto had been used only
four times in state history. Only once did it result in the successful
reversal of legislative action.
But using 1,800 volunteers, the civic league gathered
thousands of signatures in three months.
“Even I wondered at times if it was going to happen,”
On Feb. 10, 1998, Maine voters overturned the
Legislature’s action by a slim margin: 51 percent to 49 percent.
Now it was the civic league’s turn to celebrate.
This same scenario: a gay rights bill signed into law,
then challenged through a people’s veto, could well play itself out again
Democrats who are pushing for the legislation say it’s
time to try again, despite a national movement that placed additional
restrictions on gays and lesbians in 11 states in November.
This time, Gov. John Baldacci is leading the charge.
“When people are being discriminated against—it may
not be Italian-Americans, it may not be Irish-Americans, it may not be
Franco-Americans,” Baldacci said Friday. “But when they are picking
against one, they are picking against all of us.”
As a state legislator, Baldacci co-sponsored similar
legislation in 1984. During various campaigns, he said constituents told him
stories about the discrimination they faced. He described Maine as an
island—the only state in New England and the Canadian provinces without an
During a speech to a Bangor business group on Friday,
Baldacci spoke briefly about the bill and noted that the business world is
ahead of the state when it comes to providing equal rights.
But Baldacci and Democrats said it’s hard to tell if
it’s the right time politically to try once again to move the issue forward.
“You could say there’d never be a right time,” said
Sen. Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. “It’s very, very
important to raise this issue.”
The anti-discrimination bill has nearly a 30-year history
in Maine, dating back to 1977 when the bill was first introduced into the
Legislature. Even after the 1998 vote, Mainers again rejected the measure in
2000 by an even smaller margin: 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent.
And voters may get a chance to weigh in again, either
because the Legislature sends it out for approval or because the civic league
mounts another successful drive for a people’s veto.
RIGHTS OR ELITISM?
The civic league argues that Baldacci and other Democrats
are duty-bound to let citizens vote on the issue because they’ve rejected it
in the past.
“Essentially, the governor is totally ignoring the will
of the people,” said Tim Russell, a lobbyist for the league. “It’s an
extremely elitist attitude.”
In a nutshell, the bill would make it so gays and
lesbians would have the right to bring complaints before the Human Rights
Commission if they felt they were not treated fairly in employment, housing,
credit and public accommodations. The Maine Human Rights Commission’s list
of protected classes traditionally has included protection from discrimination
based on race, religion, disability and other factors.
“I don’t think I would be acting responsibly if I
didn’t put forward this measure and get it on the books and protect
people’s civil rights,” Baldacci said. “Why wait until November or next
By coming out of the governor’s office, the bill sends
a signal from the top Democrat that this is an issue important to the chief
It’s also important to House Speaker John Richardson,
Richardson said he feels strongly about giving gays and
lesbians protection from discrimination. He points to one statistic that he
calls “alarming”—38 percent of the hate crimes in Maine are related to
“If 38 percent of our black citizens were victims of
hate crimes in Maine, we would be moving swiftly to address the injustice,”
he said. If the Christian Civic League of Maine or other group wants to try to
overturn legislative action, Richardson said that’s their right. But he’s
not in favor of sending it out to voters.
LACK OF TREND
Across the nation, 17 states are considering bills
similar to the one in Maine. Some would prohibit discrimination in employment
only. Others would expand the definition to include gender identity, said
Carrie Evans, state legislative lawyer for the Human Rights Campaign, a
Washington, D.C., gay and lesbian rights group.
There’s no trend sweeping the nation when it comes to
gay rights this year. Her group gets advice from state organizations such as
Equality Maine, and steps in when needed, she said.
“Our goal remains to try to get proactive bills passed
and stop constitutional amendments that deny and harm our families,” Evans
Heath said his primary objection to the bill is the
process Baldacci is using to move it forward. He feels strongly that the
governor is making a moral and ethical mistake by not sending the issue out to
Furthermore, he said most Mainers believe, as he does,
that the bill extends rights to gays and lesbians that they aren’t entitled
He described Maine people as “uncomfortable” with the
idea of adding gays and lesbians to the list of people protected from
“The reason they are uncomfortable is because we’re
not talking here about skin color, we’re not talking about handicap, we’re
not talking about gender, we’re not talking about ethnicity or nationality.
We’re talking about homosexuality,” he said.
“We’re talking about something that was a criminal
act until the mid-1970s in this state. It’s called sodomy. People are
uncomfortable because of the moral aspect of this debate,” Heath said.
Russell and Heath both argued that a fight over gay
marriage is on the horizon in Maine. Both said they believe that this bill is
a stepping stone for that.
Equality Maine said nothing could be further from the
“This bill only addresses what happens with
discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit,”
Smith said. “It’s not about marriage.”
Some lawmakers say the bill, unless an unanticipated
provision is added, is likely to pass the House and Senate. But the debate may
come over whether enough legislators on both sides of the aisle feel compelled
to send it to voters.
Sen. S. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, said there could be
attempts to amend the bill so that it would go out to a citizen vote.
“It’s not something the speaker or the governor
wants, but it’s something a lot of people feel is important,” he said.
“That could be part of the division.”
Mills supports extending protection to gays and lesbians,
but said he’s ambivalent about whether it should go to the voters for a
“I don’t like being viewed as presumptive,” he
Every state in New England except Maine has some type of
human rights protection, and 15 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual
orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Mitchell compared the struggle for protection from
discrimination to what blacks and women faced decades ago. And she doesn’t
think the issue in Maine should go back out to voters.
“I think we’re elected to represent our
constituents,” she said. “They have an opportunity to vote on us at the
ballot box. It’s within our purview to take a stand on this.”
House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford, said he
wants to see data that proves that gays and lesbians are discriminated against
in housing, employment, public accommodations and credit before making a
decision about supporting the bill.
That data doesn’t exist, according to Equality Maine.
Since discriminating against lesbians or gays is not
illegal, the Human Rights Commission has no need to log complaints related to
sexual orientation, Smith said.
On the issue of sending it out to voters, Bowles compared
the bill to term limits: Voters instituted limits on legislative service and
should be the ones to repeal them if they so choose, he said.
He thinks the same should hold for the
“Given the fact that there’s a demonstrated history
of people voting on it, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable suggestion that
it be sent to the people for ratification,” he said.
But Richardson said it’s important to move the issue
“There’s been enough homophobic bashing by
organizations and we need to move into the 21st century and acknowledge basic
human rights should be extended to gays and lesbians,” Richardson said.
[Home] [News] [Maine]