AUGUSTA - A divided legislative committee has backed a bill protecting homosexuals from discrimination in housing, employment and other areas.
The 13-member Judiciary Committee split 8-3 on the bill Tuesday, with one member absent and another undecided. The absent and undecided members may eventually join the minority, pegging the committee vote at 8-5.
A vote that close means debates are likely in the House and Senate when the bill reaches the full Legislature, probably next week.
The bill would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, credit, employment and public accommodations. By doing so, it would add homosexuals as a class to a Maine law that already bans discrimination based on age, sex, religion and national origin.
Hundreds of people turned out for a lengthy hearing on the bill April 8, but Tuesday's committee vote was decidedly anticlimactic. The panel had been expected to support the bill on a divided vote. The committee did not even discuss the issue before voting on it.
Supporters contend a gay-rights law is needed to protect homosexuals from pervasive discrimination in basic facets of their lives, such as getting a job or an apartment.
Opponents say such safeguards are unnecessary and they would violate local control in cities such as Lewiston, where voters overturned a gay-rights ordinance several years ago.
Portland and Long Island are the only communities in Maine that have such ordinances now. The pending bill effectively would take the safeguards that exist in those communities and apply them statewide.
Lobbyists on both sides of the issue predicted Tuesday that the Senate will accept the committee's recommendation and vote for the bill, but it is more difficult to predict how the measure will fare in the House.
Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance said supporters believe they have the votes to push the bill through the House.
''Our sense is that people are ready to enact this in both bodies'' of the Legislature, Geraghty said.
Carolyn Cosby of Concerned Maine Families, a group opposed to the bill, disagreed. Claiming there is ''a groundswell of opposition out there,'' Cosby said it is premature to predict passage.
Gov. Angus King has promised to sign the bill into law if the Legislature enacts it. A previous Legislature passed a gay-rights bill several years ago, but then-Gov. John McKernan vetoed it, and the Legislature upheld the veto.
Concerned Maine Families, which waged a failed referendum campaign in 1995 to block local gay-rights ordinances, has vowed to use the so-called people's veto to overturn the bill if it becomes law. That would involve collecting more than 50,000 signatures and forcing a statewide referendum on the issue.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland had hoped to amend the bill to: define exempted religious organizations; add an exemption for youth groups; specify that employers do not have to insure employees' same-sex partners; and, make other changes.
Only one member of the committee expressed interest in those amendments, and he did not commit himself to supporting them. Cosby and Geraghty agreed theamendments will fall by the wayside, setting the stage for up or down votes in the Legislature on the original bill.
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