AUGUSTA - Less than two months after losing their fight to prevent a ban on same-sex marriages, Maine homosexual rights advocates face another critical battle in the Legislature: gay rights.
By an 8-5 vote, the Judiciary Committee has supported a bill by Sen. Joel Abromson that would forbid discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit.
Activists on both sides of the debate predict the Senate will pass the Portland Republican's bill, but they expect it to get a fight in the House. Gov. Angus King supports the legislation.
On Tuesday, about three dozen foes of the bill held a short but boisterous rally at the Capitol. The event's organizers claimed the tide was turning in their favor.
''Support for gay rights . . . is softening as the opposition to this bill grows more and more,'' said Carolyn Cosby, leader of Concerned Maine Families. ''Citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the devastating effects of how it will work out on our population in the state of Maine.''
Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance said the momentum was on the bill's side. She noted New Hampshire's Legislature approved a similar bill Tuesday, becoming the 10th state to pass such a law.
''We haven't seen any evidence of softening,'' Geraghty said. ''In fact, I would say it's quite the opposite. Legislators seem to have a real resolve this year around this issue.''
The bill would extend to all citizens, no matter their sexual orientation, the same civil rights guaranteed regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin and physical or mental handicap.
Cosby called the legislation a ''jobs bill for gays'' that would expose businesses to a wave of lawsuits and violate local control.
Many at the rally carried signs that said, ''Lewiston still votes no,'' referring to that city's 1993 decision to repeal a local ordinance barring discrimination against homosexuals.
''Our government is making itself a partner, a protector, of sinful self-indulgence by legitimizing homosexuality,'' said Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, which helped organize the rally.
Heath's group and Concerned Maine Families have distributed thousands of postcards to supporters asking King and legislators to oppose the bill. King spokesman Dennis Bailey said the governor's office has been getting a steady stream of 10 to 12 cards daily against the bill, but King's mind already is made up.
''If it's passed by the Legislature, he'll sign it,'' Bailey said.
Earlier this year, a successful petition drive by Cosby's organization brought the issue of same-sex marriage before the Legislature. Lawmakers, who usually pass initiative petitions on to referendum, in this case approved the proposal themselves by a wide margin. King let the bill become law without his signature.
Several legislators said they opposed the marriage bill but feared a rancorous campaign could imperil the campaign for gay rights. Others cited strong constituent support as their reason for voting for it.
In 1995, voters rejected another Cosby-initiated measure that would've restricted gay rights.
Cosby and Heath both said they may consider mounting a people's veto drive or initiative petition if the bill passes.
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