PORTLAND — Opponents of Maine's gay marriage referendum say a new TV ad featuring Vermont innkeepers who were sued after refusing to host a lesbian couple's wedding reception shows how legalizing gay marriage can threaten free speech, but same-sex marriage supporters say they're twisting the truth.
In the ad, Jim O'Reilly of the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville says he and his wife paid $30,000 to settle the lawsuit and can no longer host any weddings simply because they don't support gay marriage because of their religious beliefs. A voiceover on the 15-second ad then says, "Vote No on Question 1 to avoid this in Maine," a reference to the Nov. 6 ballot question asking residents if they want to legalize same-sex marriage.
Gay marriage opponents say that the ad sends a message that legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine will have a chilling effect on free speech and that people no longer will feel free to follow their religious convictions.
"The message is there are serious consequences to redefining marriage," said Bob Emrich, co-chairman of the Protect Marriage Maine political action committee, which paid for the ad. "It's not simply expanding marriage to other people. It's forcing everyone to agree; it's forcing everyone to change their convictions."
Supporters of Maine's gay marriage referendum say the O'Reillys were sued because they violated Vermont's anti-discrimination laws. Protect Marriage Maine is distorting the truth by suggesting the lawsuit had anything to do with same-sex marriage being legal in Vermont, said David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage, which is leading the campaign in favor of gay marriage.
"This is a red herring. It's a scare tactic. And it's meant to scare voters," Farmer said.
Two New York women sued the Wildflower Inn last year, saying it violated the state's anti-discrimination statutes by refusing to host their wedding reception because they're gay.
The O'Reillys settled the lawsuit in August by agreeing to pay a $10,000 civil penalty to the Vermont Human Rights Commission, to place $20,000 in a charitable trust and to no longer host any weddings or receptions.
The ad illustrates the consequences that will result should gay marriage become legal, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine and a co-chairman of Protect Marriage Maine.
People all over are being punished for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, most recently at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where an administrator was put on leave for signing a petition to put Maryland's gay-marriage law on the ballot to decide whether it should be overturned.
O'Reilly said he agreed to take part in the ad to let Maine voters know that "redefining marriage puts our fundamental freedoms in the crosshairs."
"Denying that redefining marriage threatens religious freedom and free speech is to ignore the attacks we and many others have faced," he said in an email.
Like Vermont, Maine already has a law that prevents businesses from discriminating against gay couples regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legal, Farmer said. The Maine Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment, housing or access to public accommodations based on race, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry or national origin.
"It would be no different than a Catholic baker refusing to bake a wedding cake for a Protestant couple," Farmer said. "When you're open to the public and in the business of public accommodation, you can't discriminate against folks."