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Maine voters to have their say on divisive gay-rights legislation
Antidiscrimination efforts failed in past
By Jenna Russell, Boston Globe Staff | September 25, 2005
Long before a controversial court ruling in Massachusetts set off a national debate on gay marriage, most of New England had already agreed on a simpler point: Discrimination based on sexual orientation should be prohibited under state law, to ensure that gays and lesbians have equal access to basic needs like jobs and housing.
Most of New England, that is, except for Maine.
Almost three decades after legislators in the region's largest state first tried to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians, Maine is the only New England state without such language on the books. Voters here will consider the question again on Nov. 8, for the third time in seven years, and residents on both sides of the issue say it is time for the long-running battle to end.
''We're a little island here," said Portland lawyer Pat Peard, a leader of the latest fight to change Maine law. ''We're behind, and we need to come into step with our sister states."
Opponents of the new law say they are angry that the results of past referendums have been ignored. In 1998 and again in 2000, Maine state legislators voted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, but both times the measure was narrowly struck down in statewide votes.
The latest attempt to change the law was passed by state legislators and signed by Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, in March. Conservative groups collected more than 60,000 signatures to bring the measure, now on hold, before voters in November.
''The views of the Maine people are not being heard," said Paul Madore, a Lewiston builder whose conservative Grassroots Coalition is fighting the amendment. ''This is a strong, motivated demographic, and they just keep coming until they get what they want."
Massachusetts was the first state to pass a nondiscrimination law for gays and lesbians, in 1989, becoming just the second state to do so, after Wisconsin. Connecticut made the change in 1991, followed by Vermont in 1992, Rhode Island in 1995, and New Hampshire in 1997, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Today, 10 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation; five others also protect on the basis of gender identity.
More recently, several states have gone further. Vermont legalized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2000, gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts about 1 1/2 years ago, and in Connecticut, under a law passed last spring, civil unions for gay and lesbian couples will be legal starting Saturday.
Even Maine, despite its failed attempts to enact a nondiscrimination law, established a statewide registry for domestic partners last year that grants inheritance rights to registered same-sex couples.
For gay-rights opponents in Maine, the recent changes in neighboring states are a tool in their latest campaign, which frames the nondiscrimination language as a step toward the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Supporters counter that the new law is a matter of basic fairness that will stop discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, education, accommodations, and the extension of credit. An exception is built in for religious groups that receive no public funds.
Both sides say the outcome will hinge on turnout. And both sides are worried about motivating voters who may tune out a familiar debate.
''I don't think people realize the extent of voter burnout," said Madore, who runs the Grassroots Coalition out of his tan clapboard house on a busy main street in Lewiston, a blue-collar city 40 miles north of Portland. ''What we're hearing from people is, 'What's the point?' "
Voters interviewed around the state last week said the gay-rights question has lost some of its power to spur debate and action.
''When it came around the first couple of times, you heard people talking about it, but now I'm not sure there's anything left to say," said Jonathan Grant, 26, a bakery employee from Auburn, across the Androscoggin River from Lewiston, who plans to vote against the antidiscrimination measure.
Both sides said they have strong volunteer support. Madore, of the Grassroots Coalition, said 2,000 people offered to collect signatures for the petition that placed the question on the ballot. Three-quarters had not worked on previous campaigns, Madore said, indicating that there is fresh interest in the movement.
At Maine Won't Discriminate, a Portland-based political action campaign revived for the latest referendum, tables were piled high with fund-raising letters one day this month, and the number of donors and volunteers was approaching 1,000, said group leaders, who have raised several hundred thousand dollars since early August.
The group has scheduled hundreds of small neighborhood gatherings across the state this month to raise money and motivate voters, said spokesman Jesse Connolly, whose late father, Larry Connolly, was one of the first state legislators to call for the antidiscrimination measure, in 1977, a year before the younger Connolly was born.
''I think people understand that change doesn't happen overnight," he said. ''It's a little frustrating that it's not done yet, but this time it's coming together."
To bolster their claim that the new law is needed, proponents have recruited a handful of victims of discrimination to tell their stories, including a gay receptionist who was fired from his job at a Bangor insurance agency in 2002 after kissing his partner goodbye in the parking lot.
The campaign has sought support from both parties. Ted O'Meara, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, is serving as a senior adviser to Maine Won't Discriminate.
Opponents of the amendment, meanwhile, have a new logo for their campaign, featuring a brightly colored, stick-figure family and the slogan: ''Preserve Marriage. Protect Maine."
Madore, a builder who put his business on hold to fight the new law, now relies on donations to support his family. He said the new logo is meant to send a positive message but also make clear that the proposal contains ''the underpinnings" of same-sex marriage.
''We can't include [gays in the nondiscrimination law] and deny them any privileges we give to other classes," he said.
Proponents of the new law say Madore is wrong, because Maine's Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1997, makes gay marriage illegal in the state.
The other side ''has seen that they can't win based on the facts, so they're trying to twist and turn this into something else," Connolly said.
Could be, but Debra Dillon, 43, of Freeport, does not care. She said her interest in the issue has flagged, and while she will vote out of a sense of duty, she believes the matter should have been settled years ago.
She also fears the upcoming vote may not be the last.
''I think it's a waste of energy and money, and in this amount of time there's not going to be a change in people's views," she said. ''Is this going to be an ongoing thing, with no resolution?"
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.