Opponents to gay-rights bill say petition drive coming up short
By Steven G. VeghA petition calling for a ''people's veto'' of Maine's new gay-rights bill has drawn far fewer signatures than organizers expected, and its success is in doubt.
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
Veto organizers had set today as their deadline for collecting 60,000 signatures, said Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. But by mid-week, their signatures totaled only 10,000.
''We'd have liked to have more signatures at this point in the campaign, so we're concerned with that,'' Heath said.
The petition drive will continue until the Sept. 18 deadline imposed by state guidelines, he said. The veto proposal would go on the statewide ballot in a special election late this year or early next year.
The civic league and the Christian Coalition of Maine organized the petition campaign to overturn the gay-rights bill approved in May by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Angus King.
State guidelines give the two groups 90 days - a period that expires Sept. 18 - to gather a minimum of 51,131 signatures. If the signatures are certified by then, the bill cannot become law until a statewide vote is held.
Under the bill, gay people in Maine cannot be discriminated against for 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 such protection.
Heath said national groups such as Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization, are monitoring the petition drive.
James C. Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, produced a 60-second commercial in support of the drive that has run on Maine radio stations. Heath said national groups have had little other involvement.
One likely reason for the campaign's lackluster performance is that only a little more than half of the 1,180 people who promised to seek signatures have actively circulated the petition, according to the civic league.
Heath said some would-be petitioners probably have been drawn away from the campaign by the delightful weather that Maine has had this summer.
He also said that some signature gatherers who'd targeted a specific group, such as a church, dropped out when they saw that other petitioners were soliciting the same group.
One thing that hasn't frustrated the petition drive is opposition from gay-rights advocates, because no organized opposition exists.
Betsy Smith, president of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, said her group chose not to mobilize against the petition for two reasons.
First, campaigns aimed at persuading voters not to sign anti-gay rights petitions failed to stop the anti-gay-rights Question 1 referendum in 1995 and legislation this spring that withholds legal recognition of homosexual marriage.
Second, a campaign attacking the people's veto would simply draw more public attention to the petition drive, and perhaps prompt more people to sign, Smith said.
Like Smith, David Garrity expects the people's veto drive to fail.
But Garrity, a Portland resident and longtime gay-rights advocate, shares Smith's concern that gay-rights opponents might follow this petition drive by seeking a ballot proposal in a future election to overturn the gay-rights legislation.
''I'm not counting any chickens before they're hatched,'' he said.
Nonetheless, gay rights advocates such as Smith say that repealing the gay-rights legislation will be harder for opponents with each passing day.
''The longer this law is in effect, the harder it will be for them, because the citizens of Maine will see this law hasn't changed anyone's standard of living, no one seems to be losing any rights because of it,'' she said. ''Maine is still a good place to live, and people will think, 'I can live with this law.' ''
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