Civic League claims landlords have a right not to rent to gays
By Tess NacelewiczThe group campaigning to repeal Maine's new gay-rights law says that businesses and landlords should be able to discriminate against people who are gay.
©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
''If a Maine businessman or landlord wants to discriminate against a person because of their sexual orientation, they should be able to do so,'' wrote Michael S. Heath, head of the Christian Civic League of Maine, in a fund-raising letter sent to members in November.
Those words are being used this week as ammunition by groups that want to preserve the law extending civil rights protection to homosexuals.
Maine Won't Discriminate, which opposes the Feb. 10 ballot question, sent Heath's letter to the media this week, in its first salvo thus far in the fight over the referendum.
''We think his statement goes against common sense and it goes against people's basic values about how we ought to behave toward one another,'' said Karen Geraghty of Maine Won't Discriminate.
The head of Greater Portland's chamber of commerce also objected to Heath's words. The chamber, representing 1,100 businesses, announced this week that its board voted unanimously on Dec. 18 to oppose the ballot question.
The chamber says it opposes ''discrimination of any kind in our businesses and our communities throughout the state.''
Joel Russ, executive director of the chamber, said on Wednesday, ''When I read the statement from the Christian Civic League, I was personally outraged. I think it was an obnoxious statement. I hope the people of Maine are offended by that kind of language and thought.''
Contacted Wednesday, Heath said that opponents are thinking only of the negative meaning of ''discriminate.''
'' 'To be discriminating.' Does that not have a positive connotation?'' Heath said. ''It used to have. I think it still does.''
He said that at times, based on their moral convictions, landlords should have the right not to rent to homosexuals, and businessmen should have the right not to employ them.
''I can't help but feel that a portion of the letter is being lifted from its context and is being used for political purposes,'' Heath said.
Later in the letter, Heath says the gay-rights law is unnecessary, because ''Maine employers and landlords have not, and do not, single people out for discrimination based on their sexual attractions, orientations or practices.''
But Heath's opponents say that employers and landlords do reject homosexuals. Geraghty said that gay men and lesbians have been turned away from campgrounds and refused service in restaurants.
''Discrimination is never a positive thing,'' she said. ''I think discrimination is a painful thing.''
The Christian Civic League and the Christian Coalition of Maine prompted the referendum by gathering more than 51,000 petition signatures last summer. Their proposal would overturn the gay-rights law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Angus King in May.
The law, which has not taken effect because of the referendum, would forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, credit,employment and public accommodations.
Christian Potholm, a professor in Bowdoin College's department of government, said that each side in the referendum campaign is pursuing a different strategy.
Potholm, a veteran analyst of Maine elections, said it's in the Christian Civic League's interest to avoid publicity about the election and communicate largely with those who already share its convictions, because ''the fewer people who vote in February, the better their chances are.''
He said that Maine voters are moderate, so if voters begin to strongly associate repealing the law with the Civic League, they'll say, ''Wait a minute, they're not in the middle. We like our positions in the middle.''
Potholm said publicity works for Maine Won't Discriminate, particularly if that group manages to portray those who want to overturn the law as extremists.
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