Maine lawmakers are certain to debate gay marriage in 2009, with competing marriage-related bills slated to be filed with the Legislature this week. On Tuesday, a coalition including the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), Equality Maine, the Maine Women's Lobby, and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) announced their support for a bill that would codify civil marriage in Maine as the union of two people (as opposed to one man and one woman).
The bill is sponsored by state senator Dennis Damon, a Democrat from Hancock County who is serving his final term. He worked previously with the MCLU and Equality Maine on a successful bill to allow the state's family medical leave laws to cover domestic partners. His new bill would end Maine's statutory prohibition on same-sex marriage, passed in 1997, while affirming religious institutions' control over their own marriage doctrines. Passage would require a majority vote in both the Maine House and Senate, and a signature from the governor (though a two-thirds majority in both houses would veto-proof the measure).
Meanwhile, house Republican leader Josh Tardy publicized his intent to introduce an amendment to the state constitution that would restrict marriage to the union of one man and one woman. His effort would require a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature, and then a majority in a statewide referendum.
GLAD has said it intends to achieve gay-marriage rights in all six New England states by 2012. If this effort succeeds, Maine will be the first state to win equal marriage rights via legislative means. The two other New England states that allow gay marriage — Massachusetts and Connecticut — achieved their victories through court decisions. Legislatures have been more apt to pass anti-gay marriage measures (10 states have done so). So too has the public. Same-sex marriage supporters suffered blows in several states in the 2008 election. Thirty states have passed constitutional amendments barring gay marriage.
"We would really like to be number 31," says Bob Emrich, a pastor and the director of the Maine Jeremiah Project, a grassroots organization that opposes same-sex marriage. Emrich suggests that same-sex marriage supporters are "desperate for a legislative victory ... they're realizing that the momentum is going the other way."
But Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, told the Phoenix last month that recent gay-marriage defeats elsewhere have little bearing on Maine, where activists gathered thousands of signatures in support of marriage equality on Election Day (see "Gay Marriage Comes to Maine," by Deirdre Fulton, December 17, 2008). Shenna Bellows, who heads the MCLU, adds that November's highly visible passage of California's gay-marriage ban, called Proposition 8, had the effect of galvanizing the pro-equality troops, who responded with both "grief and resolve."
"We've never been better organized," Bellows says. "We've never had better support in the Legislature and the public at large."
Indeed, there may be no better time to pursue this victory, at least in Maine. In addition to enjoying a solid Democratic majority in the State House, gay-marriage supporters have a potential friend in the Blaine House. Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat who has two years left in office and will not seek re-election, may be an important ally.
"In the past, I have opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions," Baldacci said in a statement. "I have been a tireless defender of equal opportunity and have fought to end discrimination in employment, housing and throughout society. Unfortunately, there is no question that gay and lesbian people and their families still face discrimination ... I'm not prepared to say I support gay marriage today, but I will consider what I hear as the Legislature works to find the best way to address discrimination."