Measure’s sponsor greeted with standing ovation as public hearing opens
AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative hearing to extend gay marriage to Maine took on the atmosphere of a religious revival Wednesday, April 22 as ministers made impassioned speeches for and against the bill before thousands of cheering spectators packed into a civic arena.
Gay couples also took turns pleading for recognition of their partnerships, while opponents warned that state sanctioning of same-sex marriages would fracture a basic building block of society.
The Judiciary Committee hearing drew so much interest that traffic became snarled early in the day. Gay marriage supporters hoping to build on momentum in the region arrived wearing red, and they gave a standing ovation to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon, as he opened the hearing. Police said it drew 3,500 to 4,000 people.
"This bill is fair. This bill’s time has come," Damon, D-Trenton, said to a roar of approval. "It recognizes the worth and dignity of every man and every woman among us."
Damon’s proposal — backed by more than 60 legislative co-sponsors — would repeal a state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman and replace it with one that authorizes marriage between any two people.
Also up for a discussion was a separate bill to allow civil unions — which offer many of the same rights as marriage — sponsored by Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna.
Gay rights activists want to get laws allowing same-sex marriage passed in all of New England by 2012, and they’re already halfway there. Vermont’s Legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto two weeks ago to enact a same-sex marriage law. Connecticut and Massachusetts also allow gay marriage.
New Hampshire’s Senate is expected to take up a House-approved bill later this month. In Rhode Island, a bill is awaiting a vote but is not expected to pass.
Outside of New England, only Iowa allows gay marriage, though a handful of states allow similar arrangements.
The marriage effort’s prospects in Maine are uncertain. The Legislature could approve it or reject it, or the state’s voters could have the final say.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who previously opposed the idea, now says he is keeping an open mind.
The Legislature has the option of sending the issue to voters in a referendum. Or, if the measure becomes law, opponents could initiate a "people’s veto" effort.
The earliest a Judiciary Committee vote is expected is April 28. The bill then goes to the Senate, then the House before it could be sent to the governor’s desk.
The gay marriage bill led to television ads encouraging people to attend the committee’s public hearing on Wednesday. About 800 people arrived an hour before the hearing began, said Dana Colwill, building director.
Among those testifying was Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone, who said the church has long supported domestic partner laws. But he said the church opposes same-sex marriage, which he characterized as one of several challenges facing traditional marriage.
"We speak in opposition to same-sex marriage because we are deeply concerned about the institution of marriage itself — in this state, and in this nation," he said.
Malone was followed by pastors who called the bill a threat to families and contrary to traditional religious teachings.
"Our forefathers would be ashamed that we are gathered here today to discuss this horrendous issue," the Rev. David Adams, of First Baptist Church of West Gardiner, said to thundering applause. "Do not make the decision of not voting on it and passing it back to the Maine people as a lame way of getting out of your responsibilities."
But leaders of other churches favored the bill, including 120 clergy members active in the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality.
"Jesus led a life of doing justice. We are called to do the same," said the Rev. Deborah Davis Johnson of Immanuel Baptist Church of Portland.
Even Maine Attorney General Janet Mills used religious references in her statement in favor of gay marriage, saying, "The [law] will not will not affect my relationship with my God." Mills added that it would not require any church to perform a marriage ceremony against its beliefs.
Others drew comparisons with the civil rights struggles of blacks.
"More than 40 years ago, even people here in Maine told us it was wrong to get married," said Robert Talbot, a black man from Bangor who is married to a white woman.
"People say the same thing now about gay and lesbian couples," he said. "It was wrong 40 years ago, and it’s wrong now."
But others worried about the consequences of passing the law.
"Same-sex marriage is an impossible situation for children, and I think our culture and our state will suffer as a result of adoption of this legislation," Howard Allen of Limington told the Judiciary Committee.