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We shall overturn

National | With the support of MLK's niece, citizens of Maine reject gay civil rights and exercise their "people's veto"

Issue: "Missionary hostages," Feb. 20, 1998

When Alveda King stood at the "Equal Rights Rally" held in Maine's State House last week, even her detractors lowered their voices to listen. "I was in the house" when a firebomb was thrown through the window of her childhood home in Birmingham, Ala. "I have faced guards and guns and billy clubs. I have been the victim of hate crimes."

But racial struggles should not be yoked to the drive to expand the rights of people who choose a sexual behavior, the niece of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said. "God hates racism and God hates homosexuality," she said firmly.

And a bare majority of Maine citizens last week showed, if not hatred, at least some dislike of special rights for homosexuals. The state's sweeping homosexual-rights law was rejected in a "people's veto," a Feb. 10 referendum in which voters rebuked their state legislators for going too far.

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Homosexual activists and their supporters have tried since the late 1970s to enact a homosexual-rights law in Maine; when the legislature finally passed a measure adding "sexual orientation" to the state's civil-rights law, no amendments or exceptions were allowed. That made it the most stringent law of its kind in the nation. Currently, 10 other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.

The Maine legislation would have allowed for punitive damages ranging from $10,000 to $300,000 levied against even first-time violators. And since there were no exceptions added for religious groups, churches and private schools could have been taken to court and fined for refusing to hire homosexuals.

"There's been a resistance building slowly," explained Michael Heath, who heads the Christian Civic League of Maine and helped run the campaign. The scope of the law was enough to bring that resistance to a head, he says: "People felt it went too far."

Nearly 30 percent of the state's eligible voters turned out for the single-issue election; until the polls closed, proponents of the homosexual-rights law were predicting a win. But when the votes were counted, the "yes" column ("yes" to repealing the law) had garnered 52 percent of the votes.

The referendum should be instructive to citizens in other regions fighting the advance of homosexual-rights legislation, Mr. Heath said: "The first lesson is that this issue gets the attention of the voters." While journalists may help make public opinion seem one-sided (a few crackpot Christians going against a tide of enlightenment), energized cultural conservatives turn out well on election day.

"We were up against all of the media, top politicians, and a very popular governor who was the spokesman for the homosexual-rights law," explained Mr. Heath.

Maine Gov. Angus King, an independent whose approval ratings have topped 80 percent for three years running, has not admitted defeat. "I think it's unfortunate," he said of the vote. "But we'll move forward. This is an evolutionary process." Still, he acknowledged that the legislature was sufficiently rebuked that it won't go near the topic any time soon.

A second lesson is that framing the debate in moral terms is an effective strategy-despite what nervous moderates advise. "We talked openly about morality," said Mr. Heath. "We were able to make a credible case that this law was a part of a negative change in society. People responded to the truth in that."

The most resonant voice for the repeal was that of Miss King, brought in by the Christian Civic League and the state's Christian Coalition for the equal rights rally. She proved an effective spokesman, able to counter charges of discrimination and bigotry. Her presence also forced homosexual activists at the national level to admit something they have not until now yielded:

"The civil-rights struggle and the struggle for lesbian and gay rights are not the same," acknowledged Keith Boykin of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C. He added as a hollow qualifier, "There's no law that says you have to be as bad off as black people in order to get the protection of the law."

Predictably, talk of morality and of the Bible brought out the liberal theologians and "affirming" denominations. But interestingly, it didn't turn into a battle over the Bible; defenders of the homosexual-rights law eventually admitted their weak scriptural footing.

"In our United Methodist tradition," intoned Methodist pastor James Young, "we have the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. For most of us, Scripture is the longest side of the four sides on almost every issue. However, there are times when reason and experience overrule Scripture and tradition."

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