AUGUSTA — In a ceremony marked by tears of joy and sustained applause, Gov. Angus S. King on Friday signed into law a measure prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit.
“This is a historic day for a vigorous and self-confident society,” proclaimed King to a jubilant crowd of about 150 in the Hall of Flags outside the governor’s office.
The signing ceremony marked the end of a 20-year legislative odyssey for the bill. But for many of those who were present the day signified the beginning of an era.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which hailed enactment of the measure, Maine became the 10th state to adopt a civil rights law covering homosexuals.
New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is expected to sign a similar bill soon.
Gay rights opponents, meanwhile, were planning their next course of action. The Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine have joined forces to launch a 90-day “people’s veto” campaign once the legislative session ends. They will need to gather more than 51,000 signatures to force a referendum on the gay rights law in November.
One of the leading gay rights opponents, Concerned Maine Families, said it will announce its plans for challenging the gay rights law Monday morning.
“It’s a dark day in Maine’s political history,” said Lawrence Lockman of Concerned Maine Families. The governor “is a mouthpiece for a special interest group that is pretending to be poor and powerless.”
In 1995, Maine voters rejected a ballot question to restrict gay rights. The measure initiated by Concerned Maine Families was turned down, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Last week the Senate gave gay rights final approval on a 25-5 vote and the House gave it final approval 82-62. It was the 10th time the measure had come before the Legislature and the second time it passed. The only other time it passed, then-Gov. John R. McKernan vetoed it in 1993.
As many in the crowd held or wore pink carnations to mark the occasion, King introduced all of the legislators who have sponsored the civil rights measure over the past 20 years.
They included former Reps. Gerald Talbot and Harlan Baker, both of Portland, and former Sens. Gerard Conley Sr., Mary Najarian, Tom Andrews (who was not present) and Gerard Conley Jr., all of Portland, and Dale McCormick of Hallowell.
“I want to thank these legislators for what has been a 20-year education process in the state of Maine,” said King. “Last week’s debate was in the highest tradition of public process.”
To Maine’s gays and lesbians, King said, “This for you is truly a day that has been a long time coming. … This is a day of pride. I hope it’s also a day of pride in your state.”
King said homosexuals have been discriminated against for ages “not for what you chose, but for what you are, what God made you.”
“The passage of this law does not mark the end of the journey, but an important milestone on that journey that will only end when people’s hearts are turned to tolerance,” King said.
“This bill is not special rights,” King said. “What we are talking about are the most basic rights we all take for granted. There are no quotas in this bill. There is no affirmative action in this bill.”
“We have enemies in Maine,” King said. “They are poverty, disease, ignorance. They are not gay people.”
Rep. Michael Quint, D-Portland, who made no secret of his homosexuality during the legislative debate, said: “I think it’s a new beginning for all the people who haven’t been as fortunate as I have. Today is a turning point. I think people are reasonable and I think attitudes will change.”
Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance said: “I wish we were at the end of the road. I know we’re not. I would just ask the people of Maine to consider this as an issue of fairness.”
Former Attorney General Michael Carpenter headed many prosecutions of hate crimes against homosexuals when he was attorney general. He said he originally opposed the bill when he was in the Senate in 1977 but gradually came around to being a strong supporter.
He said he just happened to attend Friday’s celebration, but added, “It’s a wonderful, historic occasion. King did a great job.”