A Maine lawyer found the limits of tolerance

January 21, 1998|By Cal Thomas

FRIDAY was Steve Whiting's final day on the job as a partner in the Portland, Maine, law firm of Douglas, Whiting, Denham and Rogers.

After 20 years, Mr. Whiting says, he was fired because he helped advocates of a ballot initiative that will, if voters approve it, repeal Maine's gay rights law. The outnumbered and outspent advocates of the law's repeal were fighting a lawsuit challenging the validity of signatures they had gathered to force a public vote on the measure.

''I was told that if I didn't resign, I would be fired,'' Mr. Whiting tells me.

The pro-gay rights group -- Maine Won't Discriminate -- claimed the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine had 18,000 invalid signatures on their petitions. Maine Won't Discriminate lost when only 300 signatures were found to be invalid, leaving its foes with 6,000 more valid signatures than needed. A vote on what foes of the law say is the most liberal gay rights ordinance in the country was ordered for Feb. 10. It will be the only issue on the ballot.

A firing offense

Mr. Whiting was reluctant to talk about his dismissal. He told me that ''as a Christian, I want to maintain a good witness to my partners.'' But it may be his faith that made him a marked man. He says he gave Bibles to his partners as gifts before Christmas, ''and one of them literally threw it at me, though another seemed receptive.''

James Fortin, one of the firm's partners, refused to talk to me about the circumstances of Mr. Whiting's departure. ''No comment'' was all he would say. But Mr. Whiting says his religious openness caused his colleagues ''discomfort.'' He says was told to ''cool it'' when it came to his work for the Christian Civic League and Christian Coalition because ''these are politically sensitive issues.''

''They made it clear to me,'' says Mr. Whiting, ''that they were on the other side.'' He says several of his partners contributed money to Maine Won't Discriminate.

Mr. Whiting says he could have filed a lawsuit under Maine's religious discrimination law but decided not to, again because of how his partners might view it.

Since gay rights advocates like to align themselves with the civil rights movement, let's frame an analogy. Suppose a law partner in a Southern firm in the early '60s started working for the Freedom Riders or advising the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And )) suppose his law partners felt that civil rights causes might hurt their social batting average and cause them to lose unsympathetic white clients. We know from experience that intense criticism would rain down from many quarters on the offending law partners and the conscientious attorney would receive much support.

The odds are so stacked against those favoring repeal of the gay rights law in Maine, why would anyone fear a lone man legally using the system to fight for what he believes?

The odds are so stacked against those favoring repeal of the gay rights law in Maine, why would anyone fear a lone man legally using the system to fight for what he believes? The law is supported by most of Maine's newspapers. Maine Won't Discriminate enjoys a huge financial advantage. The pro-gay rights side has raised more than $220,000, while the law's opponents have raised less than $10,000, according to the Civic League. Curiously, only one poll has been taken so far. A small coastal newspaper found voters in the newspaper's circulation area favor repeal by a 2-1 margin.

The ballot question is straightforward: ''Do you want to reject the law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas of employment, housing, credit and public accommodations?'' A ''yes'' vote rejects the measure. A ''no'' vote upholds it.

Mainers who still care about free speech and free association should wear black armbands in support of Steve Whiting, because free speech, free association and the right of petitioners to the attorney of their choice have died.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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