Two conservative Christian groups say they are recruiting volunteers rapidly and will likely launch a ''people's veto'' campaign this summer to overturn Maine's new gay rights law.
The Christian Coalition of Maine and the Christian Civic League of Maine said Friday that they have more than 700 volunteers ready to circulate petitions calling for a statewide vote to repeal the bill protecting homosexuals from certain forms of discrimination. They consider 1,000 the minimum needed to wage a successful campaign.
''I don't think there's much question we're going to get to the 1,000, or 1,000-plus,'' said Paul Volle, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Maine.
The Christian Civic League's board of directors voted unanimously Friday to endorse going ahead with the petition campaign.
Michael Heath, the group's executive director, said support for the people's veto is so strong that the league will proceed with the petition campaign even if no more volunteers step forward.
Under the bill the Legislature passed this spring and Gov. Angus King signed last month, gay people in Maine cannot be discriminated against in housing, public accommodations, credit or employment.
The bill's opponents cite moral objections to homosexuality and say they are not convinced that gay people need special protection.
King met with Heath and other League leaders on June 6 and tried to persuade them not to go forward with their repeal campaign.
Betsy Smith, president of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, said she was ''deeply disappointed'' with the Christian Civic League's decision Friday.
''Maine has already made it clear that we do not want anti-gay discrimination to be legal,'' Smith said, noting that voters two years ago defeated a proposal that would have prevented communities from passing gay rights laws.
The Christian organizations must gather 51,000 signatures within 90 days of the Legislature's adjournment. If that total is reached, the bill cannot become law until a statewide vote is held. The Legislature still has not adjourned.
The two groups initially gave themselves until Friday to recruit 1,000 volunteers, on the assumption the Legislature would be done with its session May 30. But with legislators still in session, the two Christian groups have set July 4 as the new deadline for assembling their volunteer force.
Each volunteer is asked to commit to gathering 60 signatures of registered Maine voters. Volle said the intent is to get a total of 60,000 signatures, which would provide a cushion in case the state found some invalid.
Volle described the collaboration between his group and the Christian Civic League as a ''limited partnership'' focused solely on the people's veto.
''I don't think any one group can go it alone and be successful with this,'' he said. ''I don't think any one group is organized throughout the state.''
Both groups agree undertaking a people's veto campaign without enough volunteers would waste resources and risk failure.
Concerned Maine Families, the group that initiated the anti-gay rights vote in 1995, announced in May that it would not involve itself in a people's veto this year because it could not raise enough money for the effort.
Lawrence Lockman, a spokesman, said the campaign would cost at least $500,000.
Heath said the Christian Civic League will not act on the people's veto before its July 4 deadline. It will meet then with the Christian Coalition to make a joint, formal decision on launching the petition campaign.
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