By Paul CarrierAUGUSTA - The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday night gave homosexuals a victory that was 20 years in the making by approving a Senate-backed bill extending them civil rights safeguards.
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
The bill still faces final votes in both the Senate and the House, but those votes are formalities that will lead to enactment. The 84-61 House vote came one day after the Senate backed the bill, 28-5.
Gov. Angus King has promised to sign the bill into law. That marks the first time in two decades of legislative debate over gay rights that both the Legislature and the governor have supported such a bill.
But opponents may mount a referendum campaign to block the law this year or to overturn it next year, so the voters may get the final say.
The bill would ban discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants, if the discrimination is based on sexual orientation.
It would do that by expanding a law banning discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations based on race, sex, religion, age, national origin, ancestry and physical or mental handicap. Sexual orientation would be added to that list.
The House voted for the bill after an unusually emotional and moving debate in which supporters far outnumbered opponents. The debate, which lasted almost three hours, probably increased the margin of victory because of the eloquence of many supporters.
After it embraced the bill, the House quickly rejected a series of weakening amendments and sent the bill back to the Senate. Final votes could come today in both branches of the Legislature.
''I think the vote was historic,'' said Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. ''Personal testimony that we heard from the floor convinced the Legislature that discrimination does occur and it shouldn't occur.''
Opponents of the bill Thursday renewed earlier threats to seek a referendum to prevent the law from taking effect or to repeal it later.
''It's very likely'' that Concerned Maine Families, which opposed the bill, will seek a referendum to overturn the law, said Carolyn Cosby, a leader of the group.
Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League of Maine, another group opposed to the bill, said he will recommend to his executive committee that the league support a referendum to repeal the law by popular vote.
The lengthy House debate was lopsided, with about five supporters endorsing the bill for every opponent who addressed the House.
The only openly gay member of the House, Democratic Rep. Michael Quint of Portland, urged his colleagues to support the bill because discrimination remains ''an insidious and corrosive force'' in Maine.
''I know because I have seen it. I have experienced it. I carry around the fear that it could happen again at any time,'' Quint said.
Other supporters cited years of sometimes fatal discrimination against gays, Catholics, Franco-Americans, Native Americans and others as proof that bigotry is pervasive in Maine and all Mainers must be protected from it.
But while most supporters strongly endorsed the bill, some offered painful testimony that they have been struggling with their consciences in their quest to do the right thing.
''This is an extremely difficult decision for me,'' said Rep. Julie Ann O'Brien, R-Augusta, who voted for the bill. ''I have prayed about this. I have literally had nightmares about this. I have spoken to my minister about this.
''The gay lifestyle doesn't feel right to me,'' O'Brien said, but she asked the House: ''What if one of my five children or brothers and sisters came to me and said, 'I'm gay.' I'm doing this for them.''
Rep. Joseph Bruno, R-Raymond, who voted against gay rights in 1993, told the House on Thursday night he had changed his mind. So did Rep. Robert Cameron, R-Rumford, who voted against the bill in 1993. But Cameron, like O'Brien, had obvious reservations.
''I'm proud to be part of an evening that will change the course of history in our state,'' Cameron said, but he said he envied ''those of you for whom this is a black and white decision.''
The few opponents who spoke during the debate said a gay rights law is unpopular with the voters and unnecessary because there is not enough discrimination against homosexuals to award them legal protections as a class of people.
''I don't believe we should pass a bill like this to give rights based on behavior,'' said Rep. Priscilla Lane, R-Enfield.
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