They've placed the state's homosexual population on a moral powder keg. Come Friday, leaders of the Christian Civic League of Maine will decide whether to light the fuse.
''Everything's kind of exploratory at this stage,'' a surprisingly tentative Michael Heath, the league's executive director, said Tuesday. ''I'm facing a course fraught with enormous uncertainties for me.''
In other words, he's not sure where the latest crusade against Maine's gay rights law will lead us. And that is precisely why the Christian Civic League's board of directors, if it truly believes in practicing what it preaches, should pull the plug on Heath's call for a ''people's veto'' of the newly enacted statute.
It's tempting to dismiss Heath's proposed referendum - grounded in the belief that homosexuality is a sin and thus should not be protected by law - as a mere outgrowth of the homophobic hatred sowed two years ago by Carolyn Cosby and her Concerned Maine Families.
But this is different - and potentially much more dangerous. While Cosby and her imaginary friends fueled their unsuccessful anti-gay rights campaign with the irrational fear that homosexuals plan to take over the world, Heath's game plan appeals to a much darker - and decidedly un-Christian - instinct.
First, it calls for all God-fearing Mainers to judge homosexuals not as people whose genes dictate their sexual orientation, but as sinners who have brazenly strayed from the teachings of the Bible.
And then it goes one treacherous step further. By throwing out the very law that protects homosexuals from discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodation, the repeal drive - implicitly, at least - endorses the use of those very weapons to ''punish'' them for their ''sins.''
Thus, getting evicted from your apartment because you're gay, or losing your job because you're a lesbian, becomes more than mere discrimination. It becomes a penance - imposed by self-righteous landlords or employers who can quote verbatim the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet ignore the page in their Bible that admonishes, ''Judge not, lest you be judged.''
Is that truly what the Christian Civic League wants? And despite Heath's pledge to conduct a ''positive'' campaign, are these pillars of the religious right prepared to accept responsibility for those who see gay-bashing not as a hate crime, but as the an act of religious expression?
''You're point is well taken,'' Heath conceded politely. In fact, he said, there are ''difficult discussions'' already under way within the Christian Civic League about the wisdom of launching a repeal effort at so ''delicate'' a time.
The strength of those objections won't be known until after Friday's board meeting. But Heath, despite his choir-boy demeanor, is clearly itching for a fight.
Last week, after listening to Gov. Angus King's pleas that he give the new law a chance to prove itself, Heath handed the governor a pre-written letter that was as belligerent as it was unfocused.
But his message still came through: The Legislature was wrong to pass the gay rights bill, and King was wrong to sign it. And now they (along with the people it protects) must pay.
''It used to be that sex was discreetly, if ever, mentioned publicly - it was a private matter,'' Heath wrote. ''We are distressed by the public nature of this debate. . . And we are offended that our legislature would pass a law that not only endorses homosexuality, but bi-sexuality as well.''
The explosive rhetoric is back. Heaven help anyone who lights a match.
Bill Nemitz is a columnist for The Portland Newspapers.
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