By Paul Carrier
Staff photos by Jack Milton
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
AUGUSTA - Maine's perennial debate over equal rights for homosexuals began anew Tuesday when 500 people turned out at the Augusta Civic Center for an emotionally charged hearing on the latest gay-rights bill.
Medora VanDenburgh of North Berwick shows her support for the bill that would ban discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations and lending.
Supporters said homosexuals should be protected from discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations. Such bigotry in Maine, they said, is real, pervasive and legal.
''Every time I have to decide about where to stop on the road for a meal or think about applying for a job or consider getting a loan to make repairs on my home, I have to face the issue before you today,'' said state Rep. Michael Quint, D-Portland, who is gay.
Opponents countered that the bill would provide special rights to homosexuals who don't need them. They said it would undermine local control in communities such as Lewiston, where voters overturned a gay-rights ordinance in 1993.
Carolyn Cosby of Concerned Maine Families, which staged an unsuccessful referendum campaign in 1995 to block local gay-rights laws, said the bill would give gays unwarranted employment safeguards.
Speaking in favor of the bill was Rep. Michael Quint, D-Portland.
The bill ''would immediately give anyone merely claiming to be gay one of the most powerful privileges in the job market today: the ability to make a legal claim of discrimination using taxpayer dollars,'' Cosby said.
State, local and capitol police were on hand for the hearing, but the large crowd was orderly and there were no disruptions.
Supporters sported stickers reading: ''Equality for ME.'' Opponents urged lawmakers to ''stop special job advantages for gays.''
Opposing the bill was Carolyn Cosby of Concerned Maine Families.
Republican Sen. Joel Abromson of Portland, the prime sponsor of the bill, said Maine should follow Portland's example and bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
State law already bans discrimination based on national origin, religion, age, sex and skin color, but Portland and Long Island are the only communities in Maine with gay-rights ordinances.
''The legislation I am proposing mirrors Portland's ordinance,'' Abromson said. ''It will allow Maine residents - for the first time, all Maine residents - to work and live discrimination-free.''
Some of the most compelling testimony came from people who spoke from personal experience. Abromson compared discrimination against gays to the bigotry against Jews that he encountered as a child. Charles O'Leary of the Maine AFL-CIO likened it to the prejudice he suffered as a Catholic boy in Bangor many years ago.
Guy Riddick of South Portland, who is gay, said landlords in Gorham, Westbrook and Scarborough refused to rent a house to him and his partner because they are homosexuals. When a Portland landlord also refused to rent to the couple for the same reason, Riddick said, they filed suit and settled for a public apology from the homeowner.
But Tony Bruce of Dover-Foxcroft, a heterosexual minister who described himself as a former bisexual, said homosexuality is a matter of choice and he and his gay friends did not encounter discrimination.
Saying that he chose to live as a bisexual and later chose to abandon that lifestyle, Bruce said the state should not protect homosexuals from discrimination in the mistaken belief that homosexuality is genetic and therefore beyond an individual's control.
Shirley Levesque and the Rev. Donald Levesque (no relation), both of Lewiston, were part of the crowd of Lewiston residents who said a state law banning discrimination would usurp local control. Their city voted against a gay-rights ordinance.
Abromson's bill would exempt religious organizations from the anti-discrimination safeguards, but some urged the Legislature to provide additional exemptions if it passes the bill.
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which has been neutral on previous gay-rights bills, said the diocese might openly support a referendum to block or repeal a gay-rights law unless the Legislature tacks on several amendments.
Some of those amendments would: allow people to express their views on homosexuality without legal retaliation; allow adoption agencies not to place children with gay couples; and exempt from the law non-profit agencies that provide services to young people.
Religious groups split on the issue Tuesday. The Maine Council of Churches and Rabbi Paul Cohen of Congregation Bet Ha'am in South Portland endorsed the bill, but the Christian Civic League of Maine testified against it.
Business interests also were divided. The Maine Chamber of Commerce and Business Alliance backed the bill, but a witness who said he spoke for many small businesses opposed it.
So did John Call, a contractor and self-described Christian from Windham, who said the bill would deprive him of his right not to hire gays because of his religious beliefs.
Municipal leaders seemed to be divided as well.
Gary Wood, Portland's lawyer, told the committee the Portland City Council unanimously supports the bill because it would build on what Portland has done by providing statewide protection against discrimination.
But many Lewiston residents in the audience held signs claiming the bill would make a mockery of local control. Rita Jean of Lewiston noted that gay-rights activists who opposed Cosby's referendum in 1995 billed themselves as champions of local rights, but ''now they want to take away Lewiston's local control.''
The Judiciary Committee took no vote on the measure, but that panel is expected to back the bill on a divided vote, paving the way for action in the full Legislature later this session.
Although the issue has been around for years, the latest debate is especially significant because Gov. Angus King has promised to sign the gay-rights bill into law if the Legislature enacts it. Senate passage is virtually assured. The House vote is less predictable.
Lawmakers passed a similar bill several years ago, but then-Gov. John McKernan vetoed it and the Legislature sustained that veto.
If the Legislature passes the bill and King signs it into law, Cosby has vowed to use the so-called ''people's veto'' by seeking a referendum to overturn the Legislature's decision.
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