LEVANT — Patty and Gary Treworgy are born-again Christians and business owners who believe strongly in marriage between a man and a woman, so they didn’t think much about whether they should put a “No on 1″ sign near the driveway of their farm.

But the couple, owners of Treworgy Family Orchards, was shocked last week when their sign urging a “no” vote on Question 1, the same-sex marriage referendum, sparked a public outcry on the farm’s Facebook page. The sign drew more than 1,500 comments from places as far away as Florida and California.

The farm page, which features a large illustration of their turkey-shaped corn maze, began to resemble the reader comments section of a daily newspaper website, not a family-friendly place where people check in to see whether the apples are ripe.

“It took us aback,” Patty Treworgy said last week. “It was distressing. What we realized was, that sign said to people, ‘We hate you.’ We’re not hateful in any way.”

The Treworgys and other business owners, including a Brunswick bookseller and another apple grower in Manchester, near Augusta, have been learning the hard way in this campaign season that politics and business can be a combustible mixture.

Their experience reflects those of business owners across the nation who have endured attacks through social media and other avenues over their political views — especially on the issue of same-sex marriage, which evokes passionate feelings on all sides.

Married for 34 years, the Treworgys have been running their 40-acre farm outside Bangor since 1995. They’ve built a loyal following among families with children who drive for up to two hours to come pick apples and pumpkins, pet the goats, go on a hayride and drink cider.

When their “No on 1″ sign triggered a Facebook uproar, they heard from all sides.

“If this business believes this way then they are entitled to their belief like I’m entitled to mine,” wrote Ronni Sagner. “I will just choose to avoid that business and not support them with my hard earned money.”

Corinne Dunlop, on the other hand, wrote that she would like to see support for the farm.

“If I was back in Maine I would make sure they were overrun with business,” she wrote. “I’m sorry but everyone has a right to their beliefs. If we aren’t able express those beliefs that is discrimination in reverse!”

Despite their own strongly held beliefs in opposition to gay marriage, the Treworgys took their sign down, at least until the farm is closed for the season.

Linda Meyerhans, of Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, also removed political signs last week. They had been posted not by her but by others, and customers were reacting negatively — especially to the signs urging a “No on 1″ vote on the same-sex marriage referendum.

“I don’t care who it is. I won’t do it for any politician or referendum question,” Meyerhans said. “It doesn’t matter how I feel. The farm does not have an opinion.”

A small-business owner for 40 years, Meyerhans said she sees no upside to publicizing her politics on her business property. She said a large company such as Hannaford Bros. would not allow political signs at its grocery stores, and neither will she.

“We want everyone to feel they are welcome here,” she said. “We’re a small business. We need everyone we can get.”

At Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, owners Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard took the opposite approach and went high-profile with their politics last week.

In an email to customers, they explained their decision to put up a sign supporting Democrat Mattie Daughtry, rather than Green Independent Fred Horch, in the race for House District 66. The bookstore, which has been in business for 32 years, has a history of putting up large political signs — they had an Obama sign in 2008 — because it’s part of who they are, said Gary Lawless.

“We’re sort of the old hippie bookstore,” he said. “We’re the lefties.”

But they got some angry reactions from Greens who said they might see a drop in business because they publicly expressed their support for Daughtry, the daughter of longtime customers and a candidate Lawless described as “young, smart and really energetic.” The husband-and-wife bookstore owners have always expressed an opinion, he said.

“I think it’s perilous for any business, but we just don’t care,” he said. “For us, it’s more important to be who we are.”

At the national level, particularly on the issue of gay marriage, businesses have made headlines this year for taking public positions. When Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy said he opposed gay marriage, gay advocates organized a boycott of the national fast-food chicken franchise. Then thousands who oppose gay marriage waited in line for hours one weekday to show their support for the business. A Chick-fil-A franchise owner in New Hampshire bucked his national leadership earlier this year by continuing to donate to an annual gay pride celebration.

On the other side, the National Organization for Marriage targeted Starbucks and cereal company General Mills for supporting gay marriage, urging people to take their business elsewhere.

Starbucks is based in Washington state, which is voting Nov. 6 on whether to allow gay marriage; and General Mills is based in Minnesota, which is voting on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Voters in Maryland will consider a ballot question on gay marriage this fall as well.

For years, Bill Darling, owner of Gulf of Maine Gunsmithing on U.S. Route 302 in Raymond, has trumpeted his opinions on a large sign in front of his business. Last week, the sign said: “Mind Numbingly Hideous Liberal Dema-Rats Screeeeeching For More Taxes.”

Darling would not comment in depth on his signs but said, “People have their opinions already.” He added that he doesn’t worry about customer or general public reactions.

“They’ve got their opinions. That’s fine with me,” he said. “That’s what America is all about.”

While Darling doesn’t seem to worry about whether his positions draw in business — or drive it away — comments about his gun shop left on citysearch.com showed strong reactions.

A September 2009 post by “Patriot” called him a “right wing lunatic.”

“I don’t know anything about guns, but every time I drive by, I see the most virulent, hateful, anti-American messages on his illuminated sign,” Patriot wrote. “I can’t imagine supporting this cretin so that he can continue disseminating this garbage.”

That drew a response from “Constitution defender.”

“Do not like Bill’s opinion?” the person wrote. “Welcome to America. In America, we are all entitled to our beliefs, opinions, freedom of religion etc. If you are afraid to hear and entertain the realistic, down to earth, honest opinion of a fellow American, then shame on you!”

At the orchard in Levant, Patty and Gary Treworgy decided to respond to comments on their Facebook page by posting a lengthy explanation of why they oppose gay marriage. They’ve since received a lot of support from people who respect their right to express an opinion, Patty Treworgy said. They also take the time to explain, in person or on the phone, why they believe as they do.

Jon Ippolito, associate professor of new media at the University of Maine, said the Treworgys handled the situation well.

“Their approach to their critics was more enlightened than many Fortune 500 companies that have stumbled on the same obstacle,” he said.

When it comes to Facebook in particular, many business owners don’t understand that they can’t control comments the same way they control their employees, he said. The Treworgys, he said, quickly grasped what was happening on their page and addressed it with an explanation that made it clear they did not intend to hurt their customers, but they do have strong religious beliefs that inform their view.

Patty Treworgy’s advice to business owners thinking of taking a political stand?

“Tread carefully,” she said, “but stand behind your convictions. I guess I feel having the freedom to express your opinion is really important.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643
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