Gay marriage focus now on Maine

by Glenn Adams

Associated Press

Wednesday April 22, 2009

AUGUSTA, Maine - The gay marriage debate is shifting to Maine as sides for and against prepare for a legislative hearing on a bill that could go either way.

The Judiciary Committee takes up the proposal Wednesday in a daylong hearing that will be held at the Augusta Civic Center to accommodate a crowd that could number in the hundreds.

More than 60 legislators - about a third of the Legislature - are co-sponsoring Sen. Dennis Damon's bill, which would repeal a law that limits marriage to a man and a woman and replace it with one that authorizes marriage between any two people. The Trenton Democrat's bill also would recognize marriage between same-sex couples in other states where such marriages are valid.

Gay rights activists are trying to get same-sex marriage laws passed in all six New England states by 2012. Maine lawmakers take up the proposal two weeks after Vermont's House overrode a gubernatorial veto and enacted the law. New Hampshire's Senate is expected to take up a House-approved gay marriage bill by the end of April.

Connecticut and Massachusetts have been moved by court rulings to adopt same-sex marriage laws. In Rhode Island, a bill is awaiting a vote but is not expected to pass.

The prospects for the bill in Maine are unknown. Gov. John Baldacci, who previously opposed the idea, now says he is keeping an open mind and watching the legislative debate closely.

Speakers from the NAACP, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, and same-sex parents are among those who plan to speak for the bill Wednesday, said Betsy Smith of Equality Maine, a group working with the Freedom to Marry Coalition to persuade undecided lawmakers.

Smith said she has no figures to show whether her side has enough votes for the legislation to pass, while opponents of the bill from the Maine Marriage Initiative expect the House to approve it.

"The action's in the Senate," said Marc Mutty of the Maine Marriage Initiative.

Mutty counts a majority of the 35-member Senate's 15 Republicans on his side.

"The question becomes how many Democrats can we bring over," he said. "We need five or six Democrats to come our way."

Mutty also sees support for adding the proposal to an already-crowded referendum ballot in November. And if the bill is enacted by lawmakers, an effort to repeal the law through a popular vote is likely, he said.

Equality Maine's Smith said her side opposes the idea of a referendum, contending that no civil rights issue in past struggles would have won approval if left up to voters. Her side also will emphasize that children thrive better in homes with two parents, whether heterosexual or not.

"It's the families and children - that's what this bill is about," she said.

Among those scheduled to testify against the bill is Bishop Richard Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Portland, who has written a letter against gay marriage to be read at weekend Masses. Opponents say traditional marriage has survived thousands of years and is the cornerstone of society.

The proposal has prompted television ads against gay marriage, demonstrations and leafleting. Proponents have made efforts to personally contact thousands of residents to win them over.

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