Friday July 13, 2012 | 02:45 PM

Miriam Conners, a 58-year-old grandmother in Topsham, sent out a press release today from her political action committee Maine4Marriage to draw attention to one aspect of the gay-marriage debate she feels has been underplayed.

 It's the idea that individuals and small businesses who oppose gay marriage will face a spate of lawsuits if they refuse to provide services to gay couples.

In a letter to EqualityMaine Executive Director Betsy Smith, Conners said she wonders why the proposed law that Mainers will face in November does not include "more protection for religious freedom" and the law as written will result in "unnecessary and divisive litigation and conflict in our state over religious freedom."

Conners said she's not a legal expert, but points to a 17-page letter submitted to Maryland lawmakers while they debated same-sex marriage earlier this year. The letter, signed by four law professors -- Robin Fretwell Wilson of Washington and Lee University, Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri, Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) and Richard W. Garnett of the University of Notre Dame -- said gay-marriage laws should specifically exempt businesses from providing services to gay couples.

They say "individuals of conscience" such as wedding photographers, florists, or bakers should be allowed to refuse to provide services for gay weddings.

Maine's proposed law explicitly exempts clergy from performing gay weddings if it is in conflict with their beliefs. It also allows religious institutions to refuse to rent their halls to gay couples, which is a new exemption to the 2005 anti-discrimination law approved by voters.

But gay-marriage advocates don't want to exempt small businesses from their responsibility to provide services to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, said David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage.

"You can't say I don't want to bake your wedding cake because your a black man marrying a white woman," he said. "We don't think someone should be able to deny anyone services they offer in the open marketplace."

Farmer said he expects this argument to continue to come up as part of the opponents' strategy to focus on "side issues" to distract voters from what's really at stake. He said the 2005 anti-discrimination law will be in place regardless of "whether loving same-sex couples are allowed to marry or not."

For her part, Conners said Mainers need to understand the full implications of the November decision.

"If someone like me can read these documents and say 'oh my gosh,' we need to slow down and make sure we know what we are doing in the wonderful state of Maine," she said.

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Open Season is your guide to the 2014 campaign. Our team of political writers has its sights set on Maine’s major elections, from the Blaine House to the U.S. Capitol.

Steve Mistler is covering the 2014 governor's race. He covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.
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