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Fight is on to
put Maine gay rights bill to popular vote

Fight is on to
put Maine gay rights bill to popular vote

Maine Grassroots Coalition leader Paul Madore marveled at what he described as the final surge of petitions supporting a people's veto referendum on Maine's pending gay rights law. "They just kept coming and coming and coming," he told a jubilant group of about 50 opponents of the challenged law who gathered on the statehouse steps Tuesday to highlight their effort. "They're saying they have a little over 57,000 signatures," said Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, who will oversee a process of verification slated to begin virtually immediately. If certified, that number would surpass the threshold of 50,519 signatures needed to put the measure on the November ballot. The ballot would read: "Do you want to reject the new law that would protect people from discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, and credit based on their sexual orientation?" Twice before, Maine voters have rejected similar legislation. This time the debate has strongly taken on a new overtone, with opponents of the gay rights law linking the question--unfairly, in the view of proponents of the antidiscrimination legislation, who held their own statehouse rally Tuesday--to the issue of same-sex marriage. Indeed, Madore, Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League of Maine, and others at the people's veto rally assembled under a banner that read, "The Coalition for Marriage." The pending measure was written to amend the Maine Human Rights Act by making discrimination illegal in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and education based on sexual orientation or gender. Maine law now prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, ancestry, and national origin. The new law would exempt religious organizations that do not receive public funds. The enacted legislation includes language declaring that the measure is not meant to address a right to marry. Madore cast the basic issue in familiar terms Tuesday, saying proponents of the challenged law were "wishing to confer minority class status on homosexuals." His wife, Susan, recalled a petition drive that she said was marred by insults directed at circulators. "Talk about toleration," she said. Backers of the law offered a similarly familiar argument, reduced at times to chanting, inside the statehouse Hall of Flags. "Maine won't discriminate," the crowd of close to 100 people cheered repeatedly. Looking toward a November showdown at the polls, they added loudly: "Vote no." Jesse Connolly of Maine Won't Discriminate declared that "Maine has zero tolerance for discrimination" and that gay rights proponents are "ready to win in November." On an otherwise quiet day at a relatively empty statehouse manned by early-summer skeleton staffs, rival factions from two of the most committed political alliances in the state put their passions on display. For state election officials, it marked the start of a new job. The secretary of state's office has 30 days to determine whether enough valid signatures have been submitted to force a referendum. Flynn said Tuesday it was a demanding chore but could have been worse. This time, she said, state officials have no other batch of petitions to review within the allotted time. For budgetary reasons, however, she suggested the office would be looking to conduct its review during normal business hours to avoid overtime costs. On Wednesday the Christian Civic League's online newspaper, In the Record, highlighted Tuesday's filing. "Based on previous petition drives, the number of signatures should provide a safe margin, even allowing for invalidated signatures," the organization's newspaper said. "Officials of the Christian Civic League and the Maine Grassroots Coalition want the people of Maine to know that although this is an exceptionally heated contest, it must also be a fair one, and we are insisting that each signature be examined with absolute impartiality and complete thoroughness." House speaker John Richardson, a Democrat from Brunswick, issued a statement pledging to join gay rights proponents opposing a people's veto. "Three months ago men and women from all parts of Maine and all political parties stood together to pass landmark legislation to protect people of all sexual identities from discrimination in the workplace, in housing, lending, and education. That was a proud day for Maine," Richardson said. "I am not surprised by today's announcement that Michael Heath and the Christian Civic League have submitted signatures to the secretary of state for verification that would force a referendum on that issue. I am also not disappointed by today's announcement. "I welcome the chance to go before the people of Maine and defend this policy. I think that this is an opportunity for Maine to join the rest of New England in saying that it is wrong to let the majority of society dictate to the minority the rights they should have. I hope that in the coming months we can have an open and honest debate about why the people of Maine should stand behind eliminating discrimination and support this policy," Richardson said. (AP)

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