DIOCESE STRESSING INDIVIDUAL DECISIONS
By STEVEN G. VEGHCatholics from around Maine say the Diocese of Portland's neutral stand on the state's gay-rights law is just one factor, and hardly the biggest, influencing their view of next month's referendum on the law.
©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
There was no strong consensus among more than a half-dozen Catholic parishioners interviewed Friday on how they would vote Feb. 10. The ballot will ask voters to rescind or retain the gay-rights law approved last spring by the Legislature and the governor.
The church's neutrality means that Catholic priests are not speaking from their pulpits about the referendum and how it should be viewed by Catholics.
''The diocese is leaving it up to individuals. The diocese definitely wants people to vote, and vote intelligently,'' said the Rev. Paul E. Cote. ''An intelligent vote tells us this type of law is needed - but is the current legislation the ideal form for this law?''
Cote chairs the Diocesan Public Policy Committee, which this week reaffirmed the view that the church opposes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but in this instance it does not endorse the state law.
The diocese says the law is ambiguous about religious groups that would be exempt and does not make clear whether the state is condoning homosexual activity.
The church approves of sex only between a man and a woman within marriage.
A handful of Catholics contacted Friday presented a mix of awareness and unformed opinion about the referendum and the diocesan position.
Anne Tardiff of Van Buren said she hadn't talked about the referendum with her husband, Gerard.
''There's nothing much we can do about it except pray for (gay) people,'' she said. She was not sure if she would vote Feb. 10.
Tardiff seemed aware of the diocesan position on the referendum. Others who knew of the church's stance said it is not a decisive factor in how they think.
''I usually make my own decision, perhaps somewhat influenced by the diocese,'' said Janet Rhodes of Camden. ''I tend to agree with what they say, but not necessarily.''
Rhodes said she would vote to keep the gay-rights law because she feels gay people have a legitimate need for legal protection against discrimination.
Dana C. Devoe, a lawyer who practices in Bangor, said he hadn't thought much about the referendum or decided how he would vote.
Asked how much he is influenced by diocesan positions, Devoe said, ''It is one of a few sources I'd consider if I had a question about what I thought was a strictly religious matter.''
Some people look at the referendum as a purely religious matter, he said. ''I don't happen to be in that camp.''
In Nobleboro, William Kavin said he interpreted the church's neutrality as a reaffirmation of its stand on a 1995 referendum that would have banned gay-rights laws.
The diocese urged Catholics to reject that measure, saying it could leave gay people vulnerable to discrimination.
Kavin said the current gay-rights law ''doesn't give any special privileges to any special groups. It just establishes that you cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.''
Some opponents of the law say it gives homosexuals undeserved, special legal rights.
Lewiston's Barbara Dupuis said she agrees with the diocese's neutrality and is glad that the church published its view this month in The Church World newspaper. Nonetheless, ''it doesn't affect the way I'm going to vote,'' she said.
Dupuis wouldn't say how she will vote, but she admitted to having conflicting views.
On one hand, she and her husband own apartments, and have some gay tenants.
''They've never questioned us, we've never questioned them,'' Dupuis said, and she sees no reason to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. ''Absolutely not.''
But she also fears that the law contains ambiguities that could leave a business vulnerable to being out of compliance. Dupuis and her husband own a small contractor business.
Cote, who serves congregations in Oquossoc, Rangeley and Stratton, and the Rev. Andre Houle of St. Leo's church in Howland, said the referendum hasn't been a big topic of conversation among parishioners, at least at church gatherings.
Priests are not preaching on the referendum, but they have their own stances, and can say so if asked by a parishioner.
Houle and Cote fall on opposite sides. ''I'm not going to vote for the law, I don't think we need a law like that,'' Houle said.
Because of vacation plans, Cote has already voted by absentee ballot, to keep the law. He said he respects the diocese's position.
But Cote said he doubts the gay-rights law would generate a lot of lawsuits and conflicts, as some in the diocese fear.
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