AUGUSTA – It was almost a party atmosphere in the Cabinet Room as Gov. John Baldacci signed a gay rights bill into law Thursday morning.

Beginning June 29, it will be illegal in Maine to fire a person or to deny housing, business or educational opportunities to a person because he or she is gay.

More than 100 jammed into the room for the signing, including citizens and legislators, Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight.

With the law, Maine joins the rest of New England outlawing discrimination against a person because of sexual orientation. It will be welcome sign, Baldacci said, that “Maine embraces everyone who lives here, or moves here or visits here or returns home here. Our doors are open to all people,” he said.

He signed the bill, then said: “It’s the law.”

Baldacci thanked everyone who worked to pass the law, including legislators who voted “with their hearts and their heads.”

There should be no doubt the new law will be important, Baldacci said. Reports of hate crimes against gays rose 12 percent in 2003, according to the attorney general’s office. The law “will protect students who find the courage to be who they are” and employees who only want to work, Baldacci said.

“We recognize that discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone,” he said to loud applause.

When asked if the law opens the door to same-sex marriage, the Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Barry Hobbins, said “absolutely not. That’s a debate for another day.”

Maine already has a Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, noted Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, House chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. “The new law doesn’t change that.”

If there is a November referendum to overturn the law, Baldacci and Pelletier-Simpson predicted Mainers will come to the same conclusion they did. “People need to be safe, have access to housing, jobs, education. That’s what this is about: simple fairness,” Pelletier-Simpson said.

Many communities and businesses already offer civil rights protection to all, Baldacci said. “I’ll do whatever I need to do to continue to be a part of that dialogue and debate. People of Maine are pretty bright. I think they get it.”

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