Last edited: February 27, 2005

Gay Rights Bill Debate Resurfaces

Morning 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 and credit.

“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 reaction.

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,” Heath said.

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 this year.

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 anti-discrimination law.

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.


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 year?”

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 executive.

It’s also important to House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick.

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 sexual orientation.

“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.


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 said.

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 voters.

Furthermore, he said most Mainers believe, as he does, that the bill extends rights to gays and lesbians that they aren’t entitled to have.

He described Maine people as “uncomfortable” with the idea of adding gays and lesbians to the list of people protected from discrimination.

“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 truth.

“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 final decision.

“I don’t like being viewed as presumptive,” he said.

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 anti-discrimination issue.

“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 forward.

“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.

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