Maine Marriage Becomes Reality: Governor Signs Bill Into Law

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 6, 2009

Governor John E. Baldacci today signed into law LD 1020, An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom.

"I have followed closely the debate on this issue. I have listened to both sides, as they have presented their arguments during the public hearing and on the floor of the Maine Senate and the House of Representatives. I have read many of the notes and letters sent to my office, and I have weighed my decision carefully," Baldacci said in a statement. "I did not come to this decision lightly or in haste."

"I appreciate the tone brought to this debate by both sides of the issue," he cointinued. "This is an emotional issue that touches deeply many of our most important ideals and traditions. There are good, earnest and honest people on both sides of the question."

The governor's signature came barely an hour after the measure won a final 31-8 vote in favor in the Maine Senate.

Debate was brief. The Associated Press reported that Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, turned the gavel over to openly gay Sen. Lawrence Bliss to preside over the final vote. Republican Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden argued that the bill was being passed "at the expense of the people of faith. You are making a decision that is not well-founded," warned Plowman.

But Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett II said the bill does not compel religious institutions to recognize gay marriage. "We respect religious liberties," said Bartlett. "This is long overdue."

Like other, similar laws in the four other states that allow gay marriage, there is a religious "carve out" that allows clergy the freedom not to perform such marriages. "This new law does not force any religion to recognize a marriage that falls outside of its beliefs," the governor emphasized.

"It does not require the church to perform any ceremony with which it disagrees. Instead, it reaffirms the separation of Church and State," he continued. "It guarantees that Maine citizens will be treated equally under Maine's civil marriage laws, and that is the responsibility of government."

In the past, the Democratic governor opposed gay marriage while supporting civil unions. "I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law," he said on Wednesday, May 6. "A civil union is not equal to civil marriage."

The governor cited Article I in the Maine Constitution, which states "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protection of the laws, nor be denied the enjoyment of that person's civil rights or be discriminated against.'"

The issue now goes to the voters. Maine's anti-marriage forces, headed by the Maine Marriage Alliance and the Catholic Church, will undoubtedly get the 55,000 signatures on a petition to put gay marriage on the ballot as a referendum in the next election.

The tide, however, seems to be swinging toward gay marriage in New England. Maine now becomes the fourth state in the region to legalize such unions. Massachusetts was the first, followed by Connecticut.

Vermont became the first state to have the issue decided by the Legislature rather than a state's highest court, as happened in the above-two states and Iowa. New Hampshire's bill goes to its governor, who, although a Republican, may simply not sign or veto the bill, allowing it to become law without his signature.

Rhode Island's legislature is expected to consider such a bill favorably once the governor's office changes hands--very likely to the out-gay mayor of Providence. And marriage is being fast-tracked in the state that borders New England, New York, where a bill is expected to sail through the State Assembly.

The governor there strongly supports gay marriage; the State Senate, however, is divided.

The plebiscite in Maine will mean that Downeasters can expect to see a barrage of ads and media blanketing their sparsely populated state. After the debacle in California, where voters narrowly overturned gay marriage by voting in Proposition 8, the gay-marriage forces are looking at Maine as a line in the sand.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).