AUGUSTA - A looming debate over homosexual rights is shining a spotlight on what critics see as the inconsistent views of some political leaders.
From the governor on down, many politicians support a gay-rights bill in the Legislature that would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
At the same time, a large number of the same politicians support another bill that would prohibit homosexual marriages in Maine and prevent Maine from recognizing such marriages performed in other states.
Those who support both bills argue that the two issues are separate for a variety of reasons. But at least a few lawmakers counter that both matters should be treated the same way.
''I think it's inconsistent'' to fight discrimination while also trying to ban homosexual marriage, said Rep. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Portland, who backs the gay-rights bill and opposes the marriage ban. ''If you support civil rights, why do you want to limit civil rights?''
''That is an inconsistency,'' agreed Rep. David Madore, R-Augusta. He views the issues from a different point of view: He opposes the gay-rights bill and supports the proposed ban on same-sex marriages.
Gov. Angus King is the most prominent example of the perceived dichotomy.
King supports the bill barring discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Unlike his predecessor, who vetoed such a bill when the Legislature passed it in 1993, King has said repeatedly he would sign such a bill into law.
At the same time, King said last week he is leaning toward supporting a ban on same-sex marriage. That bill surfaced because a group called Concerned Maine Families collected enough voters' signatures to force a referendum on the issue unless the Legislature enacts the ban this year.
King emphasized that he has not made up his mind on the same-sex marriage ban.
''I might be inclined to sign it, but I'm not finally committed to that,'' King said. ''I'm certainly in favor of non-discrimination (but) there's something about marriage that connotes, to me, men and women and children.''
King insists the two bills deal with separate issues.
''There's no such thing as a same-sex marriage in Maine today,'' he said. ''This ban is prospective. It's banning something that doesn't exist'' under current law.
In contrast, he noted, the law already makes it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, ancestry and national origin.
As King sees it, barring such discrimination based on sexual orientation would simply extend existing safeguards without creating new ones.
''I try to analyze these issues one at a time and decide them on their merits'' without lumping them together, King said. He said that if homosexuals eventually seek the right to marry for practical reasons, such as to win spousal insurance coverage, the state may be able to help them without allowing them to marry.
''If gay people want to establish a relationship that involves all the legal relationships in terms of property and inheritance and rights to all those kinds of things,'' King said, ''that can be done without necessarily calling it marriage.''
Only nine states have laws barring discrimination in housing and other areas based on sexual orientation. Seventeen states have passed laws specifically prohibiting same-sex marriages.
Supporting marriage banKing is far from alone in separating the two issues.
Rep. Richard Thompson, D-Naples, who co-chairs the legislative committee that will hold hearings on both bills, supports the anti-discrimination bill and the ban on same-sex marriages.
Credit, housing, employment and accommodations ''have no relationship to sexual orientation,'' Thompson said. ''But we do have a history of only recognizing marriages between people of the opposite sex.''
On a more pragmatic note, Thompson and his Senate counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Sen. Susan Longley of Liberty, noted that most of their constituents oppose homosexual marriage. Other lawmakers in both parties say their constituents feel the same way.
If the Legislature fails to enact the marriage ban, Thompson reasoned, ''it would be postponing the inevitable'' by forcing a nasty and potentially expensive referendum campaign with a predictable result: The voters would ban same-sex marriages.
King offers a different but equally pragmatic reason for a ban.
Opponents of homosexual rights have long argued that barring discrimination in areas such as housing and employment would pave the way for same-sex marriages later on. If the Legislature prohibits such marriages now, King said, ''I think it strengthens the case for the gay-rights bill.''
Longley, who co-sponsored the gay-rights bill, said she is ''going back and forth'' on the proposed marriage ban.
On one hand, she said, ''it strikes me as discriminatory'' to pass a law preventing a single group of people from marrying. But she echoed the opinion of many lawmakers that the marriage ban isn't especially important because gay marriage isn't an issue in Maine.
Not an issueNo one has introduced legislation to legalize homosexual marriages in Maine and such marriages are not sanctioned in other states.
Concerned Maine Families launched its referendum drive in Maine because Hawaii may legalize such marriages. Opponents here fear gay and lesbian Mainers would then travel to Hawaii to get married, then demand that Maine recognize their marriages.
Others counter that there is no guarantee Hawaii will legalize such marriages because the issue is tied up in the courts. Even if Hawaii takes that step, they say there is no reason to believe Mainers would go there to get married.
''This is not an issue to put a lot of energy into,'' Longley said. ''I don't want to put too much energy into an issue that, in my opinion, comes from outer space.''
Longley said ending existing discrimination in housing, credit and other areas is far more important than protecting theoretical marriage rights that no one is actively seeking.
In the end, lawmakers and the governor must decide for themselves if the two issues are distinct or closely related.
''These are issues that people have to grapple with personally,'' said House Minority Leader James Donnelly, R-Presque Isle, who opposes the gay-rights bill and supports the marriage ban. ''I have a hard time arguing away the moral convictions of others.''
Steven G. Vegh, staff writer, contributed to this report.
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