One of the useful results of the 20-year debate over gay rights is that it has pulled out of the closet, one by one, all the terrible fears that could visit Maine if the state told its citizens they could not discriminate against a neighbor based on his or her sexual orientation. In the next month before the latest vote, let’s hope the debate will chase away the remaining demons.
Years ago, it was, “Approve gay rights and they’ll take over the classrooms and corrupt your kids.” Later it was, “If we approve gay rights, they’ll swarm into Maine from all over the country.” Then, “Gays choose to be that way — they don’t deserve protection.” Then, “Gays want special rights.”
Considering that religious preference also is protected under Maine’s human-rights law, the group leading the protest this time has wisely chosen not to pick up the special-rights bludgeon. Instead, the Christian Civic League has offered the argument that has stood behind every other argument: Homosexuality, the group believes, is a sin, and therefore should not be condoned by the state.
“Homosexuality,” a recent league fundraising letter says, “is appropriately stimatized by civilized people. And Maine people want to maintain that appropriate moral stigma on sexual promiscuity.”
But the league makes a mistake here. It confuses the behavior it does not like with the people carrying out the behavior. The human-rights law does not, as the league suggests, protect activity; it protects people. Just as the law does not choose one religion over another in offering protection to religous groups, it does not serve as a judge for sexual orientation. It says simply that no one should fear losing a job, a house or a life because of legal behavior. It protects the sinner (in the league’s eyes) without judging the sin. Supporting such protection should be entirely within the league’s mission.
The Christian Civic League can stand against homosexuality. It can proclaim gays and lesbians morally misguided. But when it protests a law designed to protect a minority group that has suffered a history of violence it fails to understand the purpose of government. Nowhere else is the state asked to consciously discriminate against law-abiding citizens because a religious group doesn’t like their behavior.
The law’s intent is to protect the minority from the majority, the different from the mainstream. It does not matter whether the difference is based on race, religion or sexual orientation. The law provides safety when common decency does not. In a happier world, this law would not be necessary to protect any group.
It is needed here, however, and after 20 years the Legislature last session properly added sexual orientation to the human-rights law. On Feb. 10, Maine voters will be asked if it should be removed. Their answer should be “No.” Whether voters approve, disapprove or just don’t care about homosexuality does not matter; whether they care about outlawing mistreatment of their neighbors does.