BANGOR – The third time never fails?
Even with the traditionally liberal voting areas of Old Orchard Beach, Falmouth, Freeport and Scarborough outstanding, voting on referendum Question 6, to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, still appeared to be headed for defeat early Wednesday morning. Polls in recent months all have shown at least 60 percent support for the measure. But with 87 percent of the precincts reporting at press time, the measure was failing by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent, a difference of less than 4,000 votes.
“It is so close. I can’t say if it will fail,” said YES on 6 spokesperson Chris Giampetruzzi, who was still holding out hope shortly before 2 a.m. “We are only 1 percent behind with 20 percent of the precincts outstanding.”
But opponents said the referendum had been defeated again. Mike Heath of the Christian Civic League said, “It is my view that the no vote will stick. I must admit I did not see this coming, but polls have been notoriously unreliable on this issue. This should be the end of it. I think this vote has exonerated the people’s veto. People said that was too low a turnout and they wanted a higher turnout to decide it. They got their high turnout and it was defeated. It was defeated against overwhelming odds. Every newspaper in the state backed it and they outspent us 10-to-1.”
Heath said the same-sex marriage law adopted in Vermont had heavy influence on Maine voters.
This was the third statewide vote on gay rights in Maine. This one was aided by strong support from churches.
In 1995, after Portland passed a gay rights law, voters defeated a statewide referendum to prevent any “special rights” for gays and lesbians, 53 percent to 47 percent.
In 1997, the Legislature passed a gay rights bill, which was supported by groups including the state Chamber of Commerce, union groups, League of Women Voters and the Council of Churches. But in February 1998, a people’s veto effort sparked by a petition drive repealed the law in a special election by a slim margin of only 7,300 votes.
Gay rights supporters said the verdict was inconclusive because of low turnout in a special election and went back to work. Their revamped bill was submitted to the Legislature this past session. The reworked version removed quotas and affirmative action and carefully exempted church and religious organizations, winning the active support of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which had been neutral in previous efforts.
That exemption raised the ire of conservatives and some Catholics. Paul Volle of the Christian Coalition called it a “phony compromise.” Volle and other conservatives said gay rights supporters should have been forced to gain petition signatures to get the bill on the ballot, as opponents had to do in the repeal effort.
Paul Madore of the Maine Grassroots Coalition organized a protest at the Portland diocese office to “express moral outrage” at the diocese’s decision and its insistence on supporting a referendum for special rights for homosexuals. Madore and other speakers said that Maine would end up following Vermont which adopted a gay rights law, then, a decade later, adopted same-sex marriages.
The theme of the campaign against the referendum became “Maine is not Vermont.”
The state’s churches became the battleground. Opponents leafleted church services. Volle said conservatives had a strong base of 800 churches and 125,000 supporters. At a September Portland fund-raiser, television evangelist Jerry Falwell said passage of the referendum would be the “slippery slope” leading to same-sex marriages.
“If we lose this battle, our children and our children’s children will curse our memory,” Falwell said.
Although the Roman Catholic Diocese and other church leaders across the state support the referendum, Volle said, “The people in the pews are with us.”
Supporters also rallied around churches. During the last weekend of the campaign, the “Equality Express” a brightly colored van, carried speakers to rallies at religious institutions around the state. Supporters organized prayer vigils, including one sponsored by the diocese at St. Luke’s (Catholic) Church in Portland Sunday night.
Those in favor of the referendum said the issue was discrimination, not same-sex marriages.
Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer issued an opinion that gays and lesbians have no protection against discrimination in employment, housing, credit or public accommodations under current law. “Right now, not all of Maine’s citizens are protected equally. That’s not fair play. But in Maine, it is lawful,” Ketterer said.
Gay rights supporters had a much larger war chest for the campaign. The Maine Coalition for Equal Rights PAC reported donations of almost $435,000, dwarfing the $50,000 raised by the Christian Action Coalition to fight the gambling, assisted suicide and gay rights referendums.
The last poll before the election showed Question 6 with 61.5 percent support.
But the gay rights referendum in 1998 also had the support of over 60 percent of voters polled a few weeks before the bill was repealed. In that campaign, supporters outspent opponents 10-to-1.
In Camden during a very heavy turnout, it was easy to find supporters of the referendum and a few detractors. Republican Tom Derby said, “No, I didn’t vote for it. It has real problems. It is ridiculous, special rights. It’s insanity.”
Unenrolled voter John Galley said, “I voted for it. It is the right thing to do.”
Democrat Maureen Richards said, “Everyone should have equal rights.” She added, “I hope this is the last time we have to vote for it.”