August 22, 2019
Column

How Michael Heath defines ‘special rights’

Have you ever wondered how Michael Heath defines “special rights”? What does he think is “special” about equal rights? I have his answer on tape, and it may surprise you.

Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, is launching yet another divisive anti-gay referendum. The question he would like to put on the Maine ballot reads, “Do you want to protect traditional marriage and eliminate special rights laws in Maine?” On the Christian Civic League Web site he writes, “NO SPECIAL RIGHTS FOR HOMOSEXUALITY! PERIOD!!”

So it might be helpful to know how he defines “special rights.” In 1998 we were in the midst of another anti-gay campaign that Heath and the league had launched. I was the co-chair of Hancock County Maine Won’t Discriminate, and I debated Michael Heath on WERU radio. Heath was on the phone. I was in the studio with Lynn Gould, the other co-chair. The discussion was recorded, and afterward the host of the show made a cassette tape for me.

Lynn and I referred to the Maine Human Rights Act as an “equal rights” law, because it treats everyone equally. The law prevents discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. One of the categories covered, for instance, is religion. Everyone has some religious outlook, and so everyone is covered equally. It is not a Jewish rights law, it is not a Catholic rights law and it is not an atheist rights law. It protects everyone, including Heath’s constituents, from being fired simply because of their religion.

When sexual orientation was added to the Human Rights Act – well, everyone has some sexual orientation or another. So today you cannot be fired from your job just for being gay, and likewise you cannot be fired just for being straight. Everyone is covered equally. Of course, anyone can be fired for doing a poor job.

During the 1998 debate, I asked Heath why he called it a “special rights” law when it treats everyone equally. Here is his answer from the tape: “The special rights term refers to that whole body of law. There are 10 categories there and all of those categories have rights that go beyond the Constitution. They are statutory law and they are there for a reason. And they are very special rights. They are very special rights. They were created to redress a historic wrong against blacks and against women and we have added the categories because the culture, the society, the government, the public has felt that this body of law could be helpful in redressing problems or in helping these particular groups.”

What did he say? Well, first notice what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that these rights are different or more or better than other rights. He repeated that they are “special” but you can’t define a word by using the same word. So finally he said that they could be helpful. By “special rights” he says that he refers to rights that could be helpful in redressing problems or to redress a historic wrong.

Heath has consistently been against what he calls “special rights” not because they are different or better or more, but apparently because they could be helpful.

That’s not what it sounds like he is saying. He is misleading his followers and the voters of Maine every time he says “special rights” because he does not mean what people think he means.

So I call on Michael Heath to start telling us the honest-to-God-truth. He knows that the Human Rights Act does not give different or more or better rights to anyone. He has said that he really means “helpful.” So let the referendum question reflect his real meaning, and ask us to repeal these helpful rights. Let the Secretary of State OK the ballot question with wording asking the voters to repeal helpful rights. And let’s see if that passes.

The Rev. Mark Worth is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine. He lives in Penobscot.


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