March 12, 2010

Activists lobby for same-sex marriageCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE

SUSAN M

— By . COVER

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Staff photo by Joe Phelan LISTENING: Victoria Eleftheriou, left, and Carla Hopkins, right, listen along with their son Eli Hopkins, 3 1/2, during a press conference about a bill to end the prohibition on gay marriage in Maine held Tuesday afternoon in The Hall of Flags at The Statehouse in Augusta.

Joe Phelan

Dennis Damon
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Dennis Damon

Pat Wellenbach

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Gay rights advocates said Tuesday it's time to change Maine law so gay and lesbian couples can get married.

At a State House press conference, about 70 supporters, some with children, stood on the steps in the Hall of Flags to encourage lawmakers to pass a bill this year allowing gay marriage.

''Some have asked if this is the right time,'' said Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, the bill's sponsor. ''To them, I say, this legislation is long overdue.''

The bill would define marriage as the union of two people, rather than a man and a woman. It would allow any two otherwise eligible people, regardless of sex, to get an application for a marriage license.

It would also recognize marriages performed in other states and leave religious institutions free to control their own doctrines.

Only two other states -- Massachusetts and Connecticut -- allow gay marriage. New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island will consider gay marriage bills this year, said Shenna Bellows executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

Just minutes after the announcement, opponents said they were prepared to fight the bill.

''We see it as a fundamental redefinition of the concept of marriage and not something the public will support,'' said Marc Mutty, director of public affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Portland.

And while several Democratic legislators stood with gay advocates for the announcement, Gov. John Baldacci released a statement saying he hasn't yet made up his mind on the issue.

''This debate is extremely personal for many people, and it's an issue that I struggle with trying to find the best path forward,'' Baldacci said. ''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.''

The last major battle over gay rights came in 2005, when the Legislature passed a law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and credit.

The Christian Civic League of Maine, now known as the Maine Family Policy Council, launched a people's veto effort. But the repeal failed 55 percent to 45 percent.

Since then, gay rights advocates say they have made strides in other areas as well, by getting legislative approval of family medical leave time and winning a court decision that allows gay adoption in Maine.

Carla Hopkins and Victoria Eleftheriou, of Mount Vernon, who brought their toddler, Eli, to the State House to participate in the event, said they want a secure future for their son.

''The state discriminates against his family and it affects our ability to care for him in very real ways,'' Hopkins said.

For example, she said after Eli was born, they had to fight with an employer to get him covered under a health care plan, something that would have been automatic if his parents were married.

Another couple, Terry Guerette and Tamiko Davies of Portland, said their two children have gone without health insurance at different points because of similar issues.

Guerette said although she knows some will always oppose gay marriage, she believes if people understand why it's necessary, they will change their views.

''When we present them with our situation, they say this just isn't fair,'' she said.

On the other side, Michael Heath, executive director of the Maine Family Policy Council, said he wants the bill to automatically go to the general public for a vote if it's approved by lawmakers.

''If there is no referendum provision attached, I fully expect that won't be the end of it,'' he said. ''I'm not prepared at this point to say what would happen, but we've more than once proven we can get the issue to the ballot if we need to.''

Gay rights advocates say they expect a people's veto effort and have identified thousands of supporters who will vote to protect the law.

Well before it gets to that point, it will have to go through the legislative process, where the outcome is far from certain.

Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor who leads the Maine Marriage Alliance, said he hopes for a respectful debate on the issue. The alliance wants a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

He said the gay marriage bill is ''really bad for society.''

''It's changing the very foundation of our society,'' he said. ''It's going to have a major impact on children. It says something about the importance, or lack of importance, of fathers and mothers.''

Others, such as Elinor Goldberg of the Maine Children's Alliance, believe allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will strengthen society.

''There are many same-sex couples with children living in Maine,'' she said. ''These children deserve to be as secure in their family structure as any other children in Maine.''

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