By PAUL CARRIERAUGUSTA - Now that Maine is about to protect the civil rights of homosexuals, will opponents demand a referendum to overturn the new law? Can they get it on the ballot? And if they do, what will the voters say?
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
Those are the questions created by last week's historic decision to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations.
Gov. Angus King has promised to sign the bill into law. That will make Maine the 11th state in the country - and the last state in New England - to provide such safeguards.
The Legislature's passage of the bill, and King's pledge to sign it, mark a turning point in Maine politics, because gay-rights activists have been seeking such a law for 20 years. This marks the 10th time a gay-rights bill has been introduced since 1977.
The significance of that victory was not lost on supporters of the bill, who gathered outside the House chamber Thursday to applaud members of the House after they cast the decisive 84-61 vote. The Senate had backed the bill the day before, 28-5.
Both chambers of the Legislature reaffirmed their support by similar margins Friday, sending the bill to King for his signature. Strong Senate support had been predicted all along, but passage in the House had been in doubt, and a tighter vote was expected there.
''I was thrilled,'' said Harold Booth, 47, a retired state worker who visited the State House last week to lobby for the bill. When the House joined the Senate in backing the bill, Booth said, ''there was a sense of the historic moment.''
Yet that euphoria could be short-lived if opponents of the law, including Concerned Maine Families and the Christian Civic League of Maine, seek a referendum to block or overturn the law.
Carolyn Cosby of Concerned Maine Families said last week such a referendum drive was likely. And Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League was talking up a popular vote.
Turning to 'people's veto'Referendum backers would need the signatures of more than 51,000 voters to get on the ballot. Both Concerned Maine Families and the Christian Civic League have collected referendum signatures before, most recently when Concerned Maine Families initiated an anti-gay rights referendum - which ultimately failed - in 1995.
This time around, both groups may fight the gay-rights law by using the so-called ''people's veto,'' a referendum to kill a law before it even goes into effect.
Mainers have used the people's veto to second-guess lawmakers 22 times since 1909, most recently in 1980. The voters have upheld legislative decisions 12 times, and vetoed laws enacted by the Legislature 10 times.
To use the people's veto, the new law's critics would have to get 51,131 valid signatures 90 days after the legislative session ends about three weeks from now. That would block implementation of the law until a referendum to decide its fate.
But that's a tougher job than waiting until after the law takes effect to seek a repeal referendum. If the law's opponents choose that route instead, they will have until next January to collect 51,131 signatures in time for a referendum in November 1998.
The extra time would come in handy, but as Heath of the Christian Civic League noted Friday, it might be riskier than acting quickly.
''I think that we lose momentum if the law goes into effect'' before the referendum, Heath said. ''So we've got to take every step necessary at this point to assure that it doesn't go into effect.''
The larger question is whether voters would uphold or repeal the new law in a referendum. The evidence is mixed.
Supporters of the new law say several facts suggest voters would keep it.
Both the Senate and the House backed the bill by solid margins, and some lawmakers who voted against the bill in 1993 reversed themselves this time. In fact, few opponents spoke during legislative debates, perhaps suggesting they knew they were backing a losing cause.
More tolerant atmosphereMoreover, the tone of the legislative debate was restrained this year, suggesting to some that Mainers have become more tolerant. Gone are the days when the speaker of the House had to clear the gallery, as happened during a previous gay-rights debate, because lawmakers were using inflammatory language.
Some activists also say the Legislature's passage this year of a law banning same-sex marriages helped persuade lawmakers - and may help convince voters - that the state has drawn the right line. Jobs and housing are safe for homosexuals, but officially recognized marriages are out.
Perhaps the biggest sign that voters would uphold the law is the fact that they defeated an anti- gay-rights referendum sponsored by Cosby's group in 1995. It would have prevented municipalities from adopting gay-rights ordinances.
But the evidence is far from conclusive.
For one thing, the anti-gay-rights referendum in 1995 was narrowly defeated, 53 percent to 47 percent. Voters in five of Maine's 16 counties approved it. Most observers agree the ballot question was poorly worded and confusing. A tidier question might have boosted that 47 percent support.
And the lineup could change this year.
In 1995, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland opposed the anti-gay rights referendum.
Now, church leaders say they will re-evaluate their position if another referendum is staged because the Legislature rejected amendments, proposed by the diocese, in enacting the gay-rights bill last week.
Recent polling shows majority support among Maine voters for a state gay-rights law, but the level of support has dropped from 1992 to 1994.
Market Decisions, a South Portland company that conducts statewide polls several times a year, says support for state safeguards for homosexuals fell from 61 percent in 1992 to 53 percent in 1993. Support inched up to 55 percent in 1994, the last time Market Decisions asked about a state gay-rights law.
Issue still uncomfortableAs last week's legislative debate made clear, homosexuality still makes some Mainers uncomfortable. Some lawmakers who voted for the bill said they did so reluctantly; other observers were more blunt.
''I don't discriminate,'' said the Rev. Don Levesque of the Good News Chapel in Lewiston, who went to the State House to lobby against the bill. ''But I don't believe in the lifestyle. Promoting it, to me, is a sin.''
Even some of the law's opponents concede discrimination exists, but the extent of the problem is hard to measure.
Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance said the state does not keep statistics on discrimination against homosexuals, except for tracking hate crimes, such as violent gay bashing.
But Geraghty said about three quarters of the complaints received by the alliance involve job discrimination, with housing problems placing a distant second. Discrimination in credit and accommodations seems to be less prevalent.
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