File this one under no good deed goes uncriticized.

In case you’ve yet to read it, Maine’s citizens initiative to allow same-sex marriage contains a whopper of an exemption for those who see gay and lesbian nuptials as a threat to their religious liberty.

Asks the proposed ballot question, which flew through the Legislature this week en route to the voting booth on Nov. 6: “Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and that protects religious freedom by ensuring that no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?”

OK, so it’s a mouthful. Still, for those who never have and never will find room in their houses of worship for same-gender couples eager to say “I do,” that 25-word add-on appears to provide all the distance they need to practice their faith the way they see fit.

Unless you ask Carroll Conley.

“The language … gives the false impression that residents’ religious rights are being broadly protected, but that is not the case,” wrote Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, in a recent op-ed for the Bangor Daily News.

Rather, argues Conley, it’s all a “smokescreen” that provides “no protection for faith-based organizations or other individuals who find participation in same-sex marriage contrary to their religious beliefs.”

Welcome to Marriage Wars 2012.

Three years ago, the repeal of Maine’s law allowing same-sex marriage was fought primarily on the education front: Let this law stand, warned the endless television ads conceived and funded largely by opponents from away, and teachers in our public schools will be forced — Forced! — to indoctrinate our children with ideas that will end civilization as we know it.

Time will tell whether they’ll resurrect that one this time around.

But at this early stage, another tactic already has emerged: The latest same-sex-marriage law, warns the opposition, is nothing short of an attack on Mainers’ First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Conley, whose Christian Civic League will lead this year’s campaign against the initiative, said he decided to write his op-ed piece — it’s headlined “Freedom, liberty and marriage” — after he read through the proposed legislation and got snagged on its carefully crafted religious escape hatch.

The clause stipulates: “This chapter does not require any member of the clergy to perform or any church, religious denomination or other religious institution to host any marriage in violation of the religious beliefs of that member of the clergy, church, religious denomination or other religious institution. The refusal to perform or host a marriage under this subsection cannot be the basis for a lawsuit or liability and does not affect the tax-exempt status of the church, religious denomination or other religious institution.”

In short, those clergy members, churches and other religious institutions in Maine that object to same-sex marriage can continue to have nothing do to with it whatsoever.

Mary Bonauto, a lawyer with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and a leader of Mainers United for Marriage, says the exemption is that far-reaching for one simple reason.

“We support religious freedom,” Bonauto said in an interview this week. “We support the idea that clergy and faiths have their own teachings about marriage. And we actually don’t want to interfere with that.”

Music to Conley’s ears?

As if.

In a separate interview this week, Conley called the exemption a “red herring” that undermines the religious freedom of citizens out there in the public square — the florist, the photographer, the owner of a public function hall — who want nothing to do with same-sex couples, period.

“It’s a significant public policy change in Maine,” Conley said. “If we do redefine marriage, those are the types of things that have not been fleshed out.”

Actually, they were pretty well fleshed out back in 2005. That’s when Maine voters amended the Maine Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation when it comes to credit, housing, employment and, last but by no means least, public accommodations.

Meaning that florist, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, is already required by law to sell flowers to that same-sex couple. Same goes for the renter of the public hall and the wedding photographer — although you’ve got to wonder what same-sex couple in their right mind would hire a photographer who gets the heebie-jeebies from same-sex couples.

Bonauto, who quickly countered Conley’s op-ed with one of her own, said this week that the religious exemption is an attempt “to find common ground” with the clergy, churches and other religious institutions that consider same-sex marriage antithetical to their teachings and beliefs.

(Imagine, for example, a same-sex couple who want to get married while one is a patient in a church-affiliated hospital. Under the exemption, Bonauto noted, the hospital could legally say no.)

But giving the same pass to individuals as they go about their secular business?

“What that means is, every person would get to set the law based on his or her own religious beliefs,” observed Bonauto. “So here I am — I’m a florist, I’m an organist or a caterer or whatever — and you offend my religious beliefs and I can just exempt myself from all the laws that require me to treat all comers equally.”

So what’s the big deal, you may ask?

Here’s what. Take away “same-sex couple” and insert “mixed-race couple” or “physically handicapped couple” and it becomes clearer why treating our fellow citizens equally in the public square is not something each of us chooses to do.

It’s something, by law, that we already must do.

How much traction this debate will get remains to be seen — Conley said it’s only “one of the pillars” upon which his side’s campaign will be built.

Still, should someone tell you between now and November that same-sex couples and their supporters want to take away your constitutional right to religious freedom, remember two things.

Under this proposed law, what you do inside your church is, was and always will be your business.

But how you treat same-sex couples out there in the marketplace?

That’s all of our business.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]