AUGUSTA — It was approaching midnight Aug. 1 in Rockland.
John McFadden, a 26-year-old homosexual man, walked down Lincoln Street with his friend, Mary Smith. Then suddenly, according to a state lawsuit, a late-model Toyota with four youths inside pulled up.
“Hey, there’s that fag,” someone reportedly yelled from the car which stopped as another young man allegedly said, “Let’s jack the faggot.”
Three of the men confronted McFadden and Smith on the sidewalk, yelling, “faggot,” “goddamn faggots” and “queers,” according to the state’s complaint.
One of the men reportedly knocked Smith to the ground and threatened to cut her with a knife. The two victims were able to get away but the trio of attackers followed them. A fourth youth allegedly accosted them and punched McFadden in the face, breaking his glasses and cutting his eye. The couple finally was able to escape to a friend’s house.
On Sept. 21, the state filed a lawsuit against the four youths under the Maine Hate Crimes Act. The group was charged with threatening McFadden and Smith with a knife, pushing Smith to the ground, punching McFadden, and shouting homophobic slurs at both.
Enacted in 1989, the Hate Crimes Act was amended in 1993 to offer protection specifically to people persecuted because of their sexual orientation.
This section of the hate-crimes law could be repealed if voters approve the referendum limiting human rights on Nov. 7.
Whether hate-crimes protection would be repealed is an open question. It depends on a court ruling that the hate-crimes law is a human rights law. If that is so, the hate-crimes law then would be limited to protecting only those classes of people now listed in the Maine Human Rights Act.
For Deputy Attorney General Stephen L. Wessler, who prosecutes hate crimes for the state, the Rockland incident this summer was “disturbingly similar” to incidents that led up to the July 1984 murder of homosexual Charlie Howard in Bangor.
The difference is that in 1984, the Hate Crimes Act was not there for Howard, who was thrown to his death off a bridge into Kenduskeag Stream. The three youths who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter, had harassed Howard about his sexual orientation before. If the law had been in place in 1984, the state might have intervened before Howard was killed, Wessler believes.
In the Rockland case, the Attorney General’s Office expects shortly to obtain permanent restraining orders against the four defendants, Deon Bennett, Leslie Robbins, Damon Pierpont and Thomas Lucier, all of Rockland.
The restraining orders will prevent the defendants from coming anywhere near McFadden or Smith. If they break the terms of the orders, the men could face jail sentences. They also could face criminal charges from the assault.
The hate-crimes law was further strengthened this year by an amendment that took effect this fall. From now on, judges can impose stiffer sentences on criminal defendants who also are shown to have committed a hate crime.
Wessler said the restraining orders have been an effective tool at stopping hate crimes which are defined as violence, the threat of violence, or property damage motivated by bias.
Of the 520 complaints filed under the hate-crimes law in the last three years, 27 percent of the crimes were against gays and lesbians. Most of the incidents, 33 percent, were aimed at blacks, while another 16 percent were targeted at Jews.
The group Concerned Maine Families, which sponsored the rights referendum, has argued that the Attorney General’s Office inflates hate-crime statistics. That is because the office includes both hate crimes and less serious bias complaints in its totals.
But Wessler said an examination of complaints by gays shows that 84 percent of them alleged the more serious hate crimes and only 16 percent were bias complaints. Wessler also said gays were more likely to be the targets of physical violence than blacks, Jews or other groups.
“We’ve had two or three or four cases that easily could have resulted in death,” Wessler said. And because of the terror associated with an attack, “people take a long time and sometimes they never get over it.”
Wessler says passage of Question 1 could result in repeal of the sexual orientation section from the Maine Hate Crimes Act. Even if it doesn’t repeal the law, passage of the referendum probably would discourage gays from reporting hate crimes, he said.
Mark Sullivan of Maine Won’t Discriminate said, “The evidence suggests passage of the referendum would repeal the Hate Crimes Act. We hope it doesn’t, and we will fight to defend it in court if necessary.
“It is the one tool that exists now that enables the Attorney General’s Office to intervene early and perhaps prevent something worse from happening.”
Supporters of the referendum to limit human rights are split on the question of whether passage would repeal the hate-crimes protection now afforded gays and lesbians.
“It won’t affect the Maine Hate Crimes Act. That’s the biggest subterfuge I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Paul Madore of Lewiston, leader of the Coalition to End Special Rights.
“This is a human rights initiative,” Madore said of Question 1. “There’s no way you can impact a civil rights statute. They’re lying to Maine people to frighten Maine people into voting no. This is the politics of fear.”
Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, agreed with Madore.
“Of course, we won’t know until a court rules on it,” Heath said, “but my opinion is that it wouldn’t repeal it.”
Heath thinks existing criminal law should be enough to protect anyone without regard for their religious, ethnic or sexual background.
“We think violence, threats and harassment are wrong, no matter who the targets are,” Heath said. “All citizens should be protected in the same way.”
Heath said supporters of Question 1 are interested in limiting human rights, not in repealing the hate-crimes statute.
“It’s not an issue in this campaign,” he said.
But Carolyn Cosby, leader of Concerned Maine Families, which put Question 1 on the ballot, has said she thinks passage of the referendum would result in repeal of hate-crimes protection for gays.
Like Heath, Cosby’s group thinks existing constitutional rights and criminal laws which apply equally to everyone should be enough to protect gays and lesbians.
Concerned Maine Families also believes the Attorney General’s Office inflates hate-crimes statistics. The group maintains that the hate-crime problem against gays and lesbians is not as serious as it’s portrayed by the Attorney General’s Office.