Maine became the 10th state with a gay civil rights law May 16 when Governor Angus King signed a measure that adds sexual orientation to existing laws banning discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations.
The signing was hailed as a historic moment by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been lobbying for the measure for more than 20 years.
"This is a truly exciting day for the state," said Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. "This law will finally give lesbians and gay men in Maine the same protection from discrimination that every citizen here deserves."
Last week, the Maine House of Representatives broke through years of legislative impasse and approved the bill 84 to 61, one day after the measure sailed through the state Senate 28 to 5.
A similar bill in New Hampshire is being sent to Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who is expected to sign the bill. Like its neighboring state, the New Hampshire legislature avoided another logjam this year when the Senate passed the measure 13 to 9 last Thursday and the House 205 to 125 on March 19.
"We're definitely on a roll," said Matt Coles, director of the national ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "With New Hampshire poised to become the 11th state with a gay rights law, every lesbian and gay man in New England will be protected from discrimination."
"We must now focus on the other 39 states where it continues to be perfectly legal to fire someone simply for being gay," Coles added.
Until today, the only states with gay civil rights law were California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin. No federal protections current exist, although a bill banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will be reintroduced in Congress this year with President Clinton's support.
In Maine, opponents of the civil rights law are looking to mount a referendum campaign to either block the law from taking effect this year, or to overturn the measure in a ballot vote next year. To block the law this year, opponents will need to secure at least 51,000 signatures on a petition before the law takes effect.
"After all our hard work, we're not going sit back and let a bunch of anti-gay extremists take away such an important victory," said Sutton. "But even if they can secure the necessary signatures, I don't believe the fair-minded voters of this state will turn the clock back on civil rights."
Although Governor King has signed the bill, opponents of the legislation threaten to have it repealed. Two conservative groups, the Christian Civic League and Concerned Maine Families have both said that they might bring a voter referendum to have the new law repealed. However, Lobel stated that "the people of Maine know what is right."
According to Sue Hyde, a New England based organizer for NGLTF, "Maine voters will become impatient with opponents of the measure. Concerned Maine Families has already had a state-wide referendum on this issue and they lost," she pointed out. In approving the measure, Hyde said "the legislature and Governor have basically done what the people have asked."