AUGUSTA, Maine — Voters in Maine could be asked to remove protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation from the Maine Human Rights Act if a new ballot initiative is successful.
Michael Heath of Chelsea, former head of the Christian Civic League of Maine and longtime opponent of protections based on sexual orientation or identity, has filed paperwork with the secretary of state’s office to launch a petition drive to force the question to a statewide referendum.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Tuesday that the language for the petition has been approved and that all Heath has left to do is pick up paperwork and receive instructions regarding how to collect petitions.
Heath filed the application in June 2015, according to records provided by Dunlap’s office. Heath’s proposal would remove the words “sexual orientation” from the Maine Human Rights Act in numerous places where the act discusses protections for Mainers.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation has been part of the act since 2005, when Maine voters rejected a people’s veto attempt to prevent the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class. In 2012, Maine became the first state to approve same-sex marriage via statewide referendum.
A 2015 poll showed increased support for same-sex marriage nationally in the years after it became legal, essentially concluding that the same-sex marriage debate in the U.S. had been settled in favor of acceptance.
Nevertheless, Heath is confident that many Mainers agree with him.
“Everybody has always known that some things are wrong when it comes to human sexuality and that’s what makes this so controversial,” said Heath by phone Wednesday. “I don’t know how the public and the activist community is going to respond.”
Heath said he hopes to use both volunteer and paid signatures gatherers.
“I’ll do both,” he said. “Unlike the other side, I don’t have millions and billions of dollars from George Soros. I’ve always had to do these campaigns on a shoestring.”
Heath led a failed effort to overturn “sexual orientation” being added to the human rights act in 2006 and was an opponent of Maine’s same-sex marriage referendum in 2012.
During the 2012 campaign, he co-chaired the No Special Right PAC and called homosexuality “intrinsically harmful and evil” during a State House news conference. He has regularly criticized what he calls a secret “gay agenda” that poses a threat to families.
EqualityMaine executive director Matt Moonen said all Mainers deserve the same protections.
“The current law has been working for more than a decade,” Moonen said in a written statement. “This initiative is a blatant effort to turn back the clock and single out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people so that it’s once again legal to fire them, deny them housing or kick them out of a restaurant simply because of who they are.”
Heath would need to gather 61,123 signatures and have them verified as registered Maine voters to force the question onto the ballot. He would have 18 months from the time he accepts the petitions to submit signatures.
Heath’s initiative comes as national attention is focused on gay rights because of events in North Carolina, where a law similar to Heath’s proposal has passed; in Mississippi, which recently enacted a religious freedom law; and in Georgia, where the governor has vetoed a religious freedom bill.
Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon said the fight against Heath’s initiative will be vigorous.
“If he wants to avoid another crushing defeat, he should abandon this effort to undermine our values,” she said in a written statement. “We will stand up for the human rights of all Maine people again.”