PORTLAND – Fearing it could lead to same-sex marriage in the state, Maine’s Catholic bishop announced Tuesday he will neither support nor oppose Gov. John Baldacci’s proposal to outlaw gay discrimination in housing, credit, jobs and education. A public hearing on the proposal is set for today.

The Catholic diocese in Maine is the state’s largest religious organization, representing about one-fifth of the state’s population. Baldacci is a Catholic.

Bishop Richard Malone is against all discrimination, but he’s concerned that passage of L.D. 1196 could lead Mainers and the Maine courts to conclude same-sex marriage should be allowed, said his spokesman, Marc Mutty, on Tuesday.

Coming out neither for nor against the gay rights bill “was a very difficult and gut-wrenching decision” for the bishop, Mutty said.

Five years ago, the diocese supported a gay rights bill, but the times and culture were different, Mutty said.

“At that time the whole concept of same-sex marriage was almost foreign,” he said. Gays were not getting married in San Francisco or Massachusetts. “We didn’t have the climate we have today.”

The bishop, who’s been studying the issue for several months, saw competing concerns, Mutty said. “On one hand, he’s concerned about unjust discrimination against people of homosexual orientations.”

Mutty said Malone has heard evidence that gay discrimination in Maine does happen. “It’s not a fantasy. He wants to do everything he can to promote a culture that is nonviolent and gives respect for all individuals,” Mutty said.

But the bishop is concerned a gay rights law could add “to the spirit of acceptance and promotion of same-sex marriage,” Mutty said. There is some evidence that gay rights laws in other states have “been used as motivation and justification for acceptance of same-sex marriage in our country,” he said.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court didn’t specifically link support for a gay rights law and same-sex marriage. “But what the court did say is that existence of anti-discrimination in Massachusetts was sufficient proof that the people of Massachusetts don’t feel that same-sex activity was immoral,” Mutty said. “So you can see the connection here.”

On Tuesday, Betsy Smith of EqualityMaine, a gay advocacy organization, said she was pleased the church is not opposing the bill, but disappointed it is not endorsing it. “There is broad support in the religious community, also with labor and education,” Smith said.

While someday, “we will be talking about marriage discrimination, this bill is not about marriage discrimination. This bill is about jobs, housing, business and school discrimination,” she said.

During a press conference Monday opposing the bill, the Christian Civic League of Maine announced it will not participate in today’s public hearing. Although the governor’s bill “purports to be about civil rights,” the league described it as “the first step in a dangerous, hidden agenda” to legalize same-sex marriage.

It is the first time in the league’s history it will not be participating in the state political process, according to the league’s statement. Maine voters have already rejected a gay rights law, the league pointed out.

In another press conference, to support the bill, the Rev. Calvin Dame of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Augusta said it is past time to outlaw gay discrimination.

“If you drive down Winthrop Street past my congregation, you’ll see a big banner that proclaims we are a discrimination-free zone,” Dame said. There should be no need for the banner, Dame said. “Maine should be a discrimination-free zone.”

The hearing is at 1 p.m. before the Judiciary Committee in Room 208 of the State Office Building.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.