March 17, 2010

His relevance fading away, Heath exits

His exit came quietly. No cheering crowds, no signs decrying the evils of homosexuality, no rhetorical bombs likening the two chambers of the Maine Legislature to \"Sodom\" and \"Gomorrah.\"

Just a press release, quietly posted Tuesday atop the Maine Family Policy Council\'s Web site, titled \"Heath Moves On.\"

That\'s right. Fourteen years after he took control of what was then the Christian Civic League of Maine – and just six weeks before Mainers go to the polls to decide whether to repeal the state\'s same-sex marriage law – Michael Heath made it official: His days as the voice of Maine\'s religious right are over.

\"It\'s something I\'ve been pondering for some time,\" a noticeably subdued Heath said in a telephone interview shortly after the news broke.

No surprise there. To watch Heath these days, sitting on the sideline while the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland leads the fight against same-sex marriage, is to see a man trapped in his own irrelevance.

It\'s not that Heath, who once made headlines simply by opening his mouth, ever stopped speaking. Rather, most of Maine simply stopped listening.

Much of the blame for that, to be sure, rests with Heath himself.

This is the man, after all, who back in 2004 called on supporters to anonymously \"e-mail us tips, rumors, speculation and facts\" regarding the sexual orientation of the state\'s political leaders.

\"We are, of course, most interested in the leaders among us who want to overturn marriage, eliminate the mother/father family as the ideal, etc.,\" Heath wrote at the time. \"The list is long, so we won\'t lack for material.\"

Thankfully, the modern-day witch hunt never materialized. Instead, Heath earned himself widespread condemnation from every corner of the state, along with a one-month suspension from his own board.

\"It was clearly over the top. I was wrong,\" Heath told me at the time as the fallout rained down around him. \"I think I was unwise in how zealous I became for my cause.\"

This is also the man who one year later equated gays\' and lesbians\' \"desperately evil\" crusade for equal rights with the \"Nazi tyranny\" that led to World War II. To remain \"passive\" against homosexuals, Heath railed, was to invite the fate of those who failed to stand up to Hitler.

This is also the man who once warned that if Maine passed an equal rights statute, \"we may turn a corner, trip and fall into the moral gutter of sexual, relational and legal permissiveness that engulfs Maine\'s southern city of Portland.\" The law ultimately passed – and everyone\'s still standing.

In short, this was a man who, time and again, played to his ever-shrinking congregation of loyalists without noticing (or perhaps caring) that each over-the-top salvo left many more Mainers wiping the soot from their eyes and wondering what in the name of God Heath was doing.

That said, there\'s more to Heath\'s denouement than his own hubris – and even he knows it.

\"The complexity of the debate on moral and social issues, particularly abortion and homosexuality, has changed and is changing,\" Heath said Tuesday. \"And it\'s taken a lot of effort on my part to lead with those changes.\"

He\'s right. Equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Mainers – once the fulcrum upon which this state defined morality – survived Heath and Co.\'s last challenge in 2005 and is now accepted as the law of the land.

And same-sex marriage, considered by many an idea whose time had not yet come as recently as a year ago, is now a percentage point or two away from being similarly enshrined in statute.

In other words, as Bob Dylan once wrote, the times they are a changin\'. And Heath, who now looks at the looming same-sex marriage referendum and recalls that \"everybody laughed\" when he predicted more than a decade ago that it would come to this, can only scratch his head and wonder why at this critical moment nobody seems interested any longer in what he has to say.

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