Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage Advances in Maine - NYTimes.com

Same-Sex Marriage Advances in Maine - NYTimes.com

Published: May 5, 2009

AUGUSTA, Me. — The Maine House of Representatives approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage Tuesday, bringing the state one step closer toward legalizing the practice.

After an emotional three-hour debate, the Democratically-controlled House voted 89 to 57 in favor of the bill.

“The country is watching us, to see how a small proud, independent state will stand on issue of equality,” said Rep. Sean Flaherty of Scarborough, who supported the bill.

The State Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats, approved the bill last week in a 21 to 14 vote. The vote was mostly along party lines, though one Democrat opposed the bill and one Republican voted in favor. The body must now give final approval to the bill.

But while the measure sailed through both chambers of the legislature in less than a week, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, could still veto it. Mr. Baldacci opposed same-sex marriage before the bill was introduced this year, but he has since said he is keeping an open mind.

Mr. Baldacci’s spokesman, David Farmer, said he was still mulling his position on the bill and would not make a final decision until after it reached his desk. That could be as soon as tomorrow, when the State Senate is scheduled to formally enact it. Mr. Baldacci will have 10 days to act on the bill once it is delivered to him.

“He absolutely is listening to what people have to say,” Mr. Farmer said. “But at the end of the day, I think it will come down to what he believes is the right thing to do.”

The Catholic Diocese of Maine will be among the groups lobbying Mr. Baldacci to veto the bill, as will the Maine Family Policy Council, an affiliate of the Family Research Council in Washington. The bill probably could not gain enough support in either house for an override.

“We’re going to be on his case to veto,” said Marc R. Mutty, director of public affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

The House chamber was thick with emotion Tuesday morning, as many legislators openly wept and revealed personal details few knew. One woman told legislators for the first time that she has a lesbian daughter; another wept as he told colleagues that he, as a white man, wouldn’t have been able to marry his wife of 25 years, who is black, if a law weren’t changed. Other legislators spoke of sleepless nights debating how to vote on the bill.

“As a member of this legislative body ethically it is my duty, my responsibility, to publicly say to my daughter I do not support her way of life,” said Rep. Sheryl Briggs, whose daughter is a lesbian. “I just had to finally confess to her exactly how I feel, and now I have no choice. I have to hit that button.”

Rep. Veronica Mangan, who said her Pentecostal faith doesn’t support same-sex marriage, said she believes that the issue is one of equality, and two committed adults should be viewed as so and granted benefits under the law.

“This is more of a choice of conscious than Constitution,” said Rep. Mangan. “I support this bill because it’s the right thing to do.”

The vote in the Maine House came less than a week after the New Hampshire Senate approved a bill that would allow same-sex marriage starting next year. The House is scheduled to vote on that bill Wednesday and passage is likely. But Gov. John Lynch has not revealed his intentions for the bill.

Mr. Lynch, a Democrat, has consistently opposed same-sex marriage, but he could also let the bill become law without his signature. After the Senate’s vote last week, Mr. Lynch restated his belief that the state’s two-year-old civil-union law provides sufficient rights and protections to gay couples.

”To achieve further real progress,” he said in a statement, ”the federal government would need to take action to recognize New Hampshire civil unions.”

The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. It denies federal benefits, like Social Security survivors’ payments, to spouses in such marriages. President Obama has called for the law’s repeal but has stopped short of supporting same-sex marriage, saying that civil unions give gay couples the same legal rights and privileges as married couples.

Although Iowa now allows same-sex marriage after a court ruling last month and California briefly allowed it last year before voters amended the State Constitution to ban the practice, the movement has been most successful in New England. If Mr. Baldacci does not veto the bill here, Maine will become the fourth of the region’s six states to allow same-sex marriage. Massachusetts was the first – and the first in the nation – following a court ruling in 2003. More than 16,000 gay couples have wed there since.

Connecticut began allowing same-sex marriage last fall, and it will become legal in Vermont in September. A bill has been introduced in Rhode Island but is unlikely to be acted on this year; proponents believe they will have a better chance in 2011, after Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican who adamantly opposes same-sex marriage, leaves office.

Critics say the movement has succeeded in New England largely because courts and legislatures, not voters, are making the decisions. Voters have approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in more than two dozen states since the Massachusetts law took effect.

But unlike New Hampshire and Vermont, which essentially do not allow citizen-initiated referenda, Maine has a “people’s veto” process by which citizens can put a question on the ballot with the aim of overturning a law.

Opponents will surely try to collect enough signatures to suspend the law – about 55,000 – until a public referendum can be held — likely in June 2010 — asking voters if they want to overturn it.

“It’s no secret that a people’s veto is highly likely,” said Mr. Mutty, who said opponents of same-sex marriage are waiting for Mr. Baldacci to act. “Are we talking about it? Yes. Are we making plans? Yes. Are ready to do it? No. That would be a violation of the process.”

Equality Maine, the chief group that lobbied for the bill’s passage, spent the last three years building support for same-sex marriage around the state and ramped up its campaign over the last few months.

“We want to have a discussion with the people of Maine, and the culmination of that discussion will likely be at the ballot,” said Mary L. Bonauto, civil rights director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

An independent poll conducted in April of 400 Maine residents found they were almost equally divided on the issue. The poll, conducted by Pan Atlantic SMS Group of Portland, found that 50 percent of respondents opposed the same-sex marriage bill before the Legislature; 47 percent supported it; and 3 percent were unsure. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

No comments: