March 11, 2010

House keeps gay marriage bill on path to BaldacciCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday to allow same-sex marriage in Maine, after a passionate debate that lasted nearly three hours.

The 89-57 vote sent the bill to the Senate, which is expected to take a final vote on LD 1020 today, after giving it preliminary approval last week.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill and send it to Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who would then have 10 days to either sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

What he'll do remains a mystery.

''The governor will decide when it actually gets to his desk,'' said David Farmer, Baldacci's deputy chief of staff. ''He was listening to the floor debate in the House, the public hearing at the civic center. He's talked to people, he's looking at constituent mail. He'll make his decision when he's ready.''

Baldacci has said in the past that he opposed gay marriage, but has said recently that he is keeping an open mind. Both sides have lobbied him furiously over the issue. And both sides were hopeful Tuesday that he'd respond to their efforts.

''We're waiting to see what the governor's going to do -- of course, nobody knows,'' said the Rev. Bob Emrich, pastor of Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth and a founder of the Maine Marriage Alliance, which opposes the law. ''We're anxious. We're hoping the governor will maintain the position he's had all along, and that he'll protect marriage.''

Bill opponents have said they will mount a people's veto campaign if the law is enacted, asking voters to overturn it in November.

Supporters are hopeful the governor will side with them. Baldacci has been an elected official for a long time, and has a strong record voting in support of rights for gay and lesbian people, said Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, the state's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political advocacy group.

''There's no reason for us to believe he's going to do anything different than he's done all of his public life,'' she said. ''That is, stand on the side of fairness and equality for gay and lesbian families and on the right side of history.''

Smith said proponents are still working on Baldacci, contacting him to urge his support. ''That contact is not going to stop until the day he announces he's going to sign this bill,'' she said.

House members were still being lobbied even as they debated Tuesday. House pages distributed stacks of blue postcards, sent by proponents in various districts to their representatives. The effort was organized by Equality Maine.

The debate was personal for many, and more than one lawmaker called Tuesday's vote one of the most important they would make as legislators.

State Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said he was a ''very proud co-sponsor of this bill,'' and also an openly gay man. ''As of this point on, I'm an openly gay representative, and darn proud,'' he said.

He talked about how his partner of 11 years had committed suicide four years ago. They had a close friendship with a lesbian couple, he said, and had agreed to start a family together.

His voice breaking, Morrison talked about how the two couples had two daughters together, now 10 and 11. He disputed the argument that gay people couldn't provide a stable family life.

''We created a phenomenal family. That family still exists,'' he said. ''I'm living proof -- we're all living proof -- that we can have a phenomenal family.''

State Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, said the vote was ''the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life.''

She said she's struggled with the vote for months, because her daughter is a lesbian. Briggs said she has always loved and supported her daughter, but doesn't ''support her way of life.''

''The deepest part of my soul tells me this is wrong,'' she said. ''I am so sorry there is no other way we could compromise, to make things better for everyone.''

A number of representatives argued against the bill on the grounds that it flew in the face of tradition and religion.

''My mother taught me marriage is a special relationship between a man and a woman,'' said state Rep. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, adding that gay marriage was ''just plain wrong.'' State Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he thought the concept was ''completely opposed to human nature.'' Most problems in society, he said, could be traced to the destabilization of family, of communities and of religious institutions.

''I don't believe this is about love and equality,'' he said. ''I think it's about recognition and legitimization of the lifestyles of a tiny segment of the population.''

State Rep. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he didn't think the issue was one of civil rights, as proponents have framed the debate, but rather was about a ''social agenda that tears the very fabric of our society.''

State Rep. Lawrence Sirois, D-Turner, said he was a deacon at a Baptist church. He doesn't agree with the ''gay and lesbian lifestyle,'' he said, and neither does his church.

But, he said, he also believes in the Biblical mandate of ''love your neighbor as yourself.''

''That's everyone,'' he said. ''This bill, the way I look at it, gives rights that have not been there for some people in this state.''

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, talked about how she had learned of numerous civil rights fights in high school history classes. From women's suffrage to equal rights for black people, Russell said, she always hoped her character would mirror those who came before her.

In supporting LD 1020, she said, she hoped that 40 years from now, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would know she stood on the right side of history.

State Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, recalled when he was on a college trip to South Carolina in 1958 and drank from a water fountain marked ''whites only.'' He said he remembers drinking from the fountain with anger and embarrassment, and that the country eventually learned why that was wrong. In the same way, he argued, now is the time for gay marriage to be legalized in Maine.

''It's never a bad time to make things right,'' he said.

In supporting the bill, State Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland, urged her colleagues to look at the statue of the lady of wisdom atop the State House dome when they left for the day.

''You will see the lady of wisdom is holding her torch a little higher,'' she said. ''It is burning a little brighter, and she is smiling.''

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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