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The Maine event.

When the Supreme Court deemed Colorado's antigay initiative unconstitutional in 1996, gay activists sighed with relief. The decisive court ruling appeared to put an end to years of bitter, expensive battles defending carefully crafted antidiscrimination laws. Gay rights advocates could finally go back on the offensive.

As it turns out, it was too soon to celebrate: Activists must fight at least one more statewide initiative. Maine voters will cast ballots February 10 in a referendum that could overturn the state's ban on antigay discrimination, which was signed into law last May by Gov. Angus King. "This is a critical test," says Sue Hyde, the New England field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "We need to keep the protections in Maine at the same time we send the message to antigay organizers everywhere that it is going to be difficult to overturn gay rights legislation."

The election is fraught with political risk. If the Right wins, it will have done so by depicting gays as evil. "The tactic being employed is to equate gay men and lesbians with depravity and sin, and that raises the stakes," says Bill Nemitz, a columnist for the Portland [Me.] Press Herald.

The Maine measure differs from initiatives struck down by the high court two years ago in that it proposes to overturn existing legislation rather than preempt future measures banning sexual-orientation discrimination. If the referendum passes, it will be a shot in the arm for antigay forces still reeling from the Amendment 2 decision. And despite the Supreme Court ruling, lower courts are still debating the legality of antigay ballot measures, making defensive tactics as necessary as ever for gay rights advocates. For instance, the sixth circuit U.S. court of appeals is expected to rule early this year on whether to grant a hearing on the constitutionality of a 1993 ballot measure overturning Cincinnati's ban on antigay discrimination. To the surprise of legal observers, a three-judge panel of the sixth circuit decided that the Supreme Court's ruling in Romer v. Evans -- the Colorado case -- did not invalidate the Cincinnati measure, which prohibited the city from ever including gay men and lesbians in antidiscrimination law.

"I see little hope for Romer-style initiatives like the me in Cincinnati," says Pat Logue, who is handling the case as managing attorney for the Chicago office of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay group. "But when the Right is smart enough to craft them to fall within the Supreme Court decision by not singling out gay men and lesbians for discrimination, there is not always that much we can do about it from a legal perspective. That's where politics comes in. "

Indeed, the fight for civil protection will continue to be a priority for gay activists in 1998. Gay rights legislation still faces formidable political opposition even in states like Maine with moderate to liberal electorates. "From the Right's perspective, opposition to antidiscrimination for gay people remains an effective organizing tool," says Hyde. "It will not go away unless we make it wasteful for them to undertake antigay campaigns. "

Despite polls showing widespread support for the state's antidiscrimination legislation, Maine Won't Discriminate, the group leading opposition to the repeal, faces an uphill battle. To qualify the measure for the ballot, the Christian Civic League of Maine collected the signatures of more than 58,000 voters, many of whom can be counted on to cast ballots in a wintry month when many voters might stay home.

The campaign manager for Maine Won't Discriminate, Karen Geraghty, says her group will undertake an intensive campaign relying heavily on supporters from earlier gay rights campaigns, In 1995 Maine voters narrowly defeated a far more sweeping measure that would have prohibited any additions to the human rights law. Says Geraghty: "We have a lot of committed people who want to make sure that all the work on the previous campaigns does not go to waste. "

Geraghty says her group will steer clear of divisive rhetoric. "We know from experience that when the Right goes off on antigay tangents, it loses," she says. "Voters respond to messages of equality and fairness." Christian Civic League executive director Michael Heath did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, voters may also be growing weary of gay-related ballot measures, a development that could be to the advantage of gay activists. Frank Whitworth, the outgoing executive director of Ground Zero, a gay group in Colorado Springs, Colo., says the state has collectively yawned at the announcement by the conservative group Colorado for Family Values that it may pursue another antigay ballot measure. "Antigay organizers are going to keep trying to find the right formula so that they can justify their existence,"Whitworth says. "People are simply sick and tired of hearing from antigay activists. They just want them to go away." Gay rights activists are learning, however, that until they do go away, it may be unwise to step away from the battlefield.

On the calendar in Washington

* Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund expects to see a record number of lesbian, gay, and AIDS-related concerns in the country's highest court this year. "Never have the stakes been so high for the civil rights of our community," said Lambda's legal director, Beatrice Dobrn, in a statement to the press. "The Supreme Court and other high-level courts are expected to address employment, the military, disability protections, family, and other fundamental constitutional issues. "

* Congressional supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act will reintroduce the legislation in the spring. The law is unlikely to make significant progress as long as Republicans control both houses. However, near year's end there could be some changes on Capitol Hill. At least two openly lesbian candidates, Wisconsin state representative Tammy Baldwin and retired Army colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer of Washington State, have shots at winning congressional seats.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:antigay initiatives
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Feb 3, 1998
Previous Article:Look before you click.
Next Article:Cutting back.

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