Thursday, December 5, 2013
By GEORGE BURNS
PORTLAND - Allowing same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license has the potential to change the lives of thousands of gay and lesbian families living in Maine.
The impact of the law will be to strengthen families, and the law asks for nothing more from its detractors than common decency to fellow citizens.
Question 1 asks voters to allow loving, committed same-sex couples to receive a marriage license while also guaranteeing that no member of the clergy, church, religious institution or denomination ever has to perform or host a wedding that goes against their beliefs.
In fact, the initiative goes as far as to guarantee that churches or religious institutions can't be sued if they say "no" to a wedding they disagree with or refuse to allow one on their premises.
That's rock-solid protection.
In his recent syndicated column ("Government bullies target wedding photographer for refusing gay clients," Portland Press Herald, Sept. 17), George Will talks about a New Mexico wedding photographer who was found by the state's Human Rights Commission to have violated anti-bias laws. The case, which began in 2006, is now before New Mexico's Supreme Court.
Opponents of marriage for same-sex couples use the New Mexico case as an example of what could happen in Maine. It's a red herring, meant to scare people into opposing the freedom to marry.
For one thing, New Mexico doesn't allow same-sex couples to marry, as columnist Will points out.
As well, the photography business admitted it would not serve same-sex couples but would serve others. New Mexico, like Maine and many other states, already has on the books anti-discrimination laws that apply to businesses selling goods or services.
When you're in the marketplace, you can't shut people out based on race, ethnicity, sex, religion, sexual orientation, disability or place of birth.
Maine's initiative doesn't change those laws.
Today, state law requires that businesses be open to all customers, regardless of the business owner's political, philosophical or religious views. That will be just as true the day after the election this year, regardless of how the vote goes.
In Maine, you can't discriminate against someone based on their religion or your own. A Protestant baker cannot turn away a Catholic groom or refuse to bake a cake for a Jewish wedding.
Will unfairly targets the couple mentioned in his column as "intolerant." The business owners never even gave the couple a chance to be tolerant of their religious objections. All they did is say they would not serve same-sex couples but would serve opposite-sex couples.
That blatant double standard prompted the legal complaint. Had there been a genuine effort at communicating and explaining their point of view, this might never have happened.
After all, same-sex couples want to get married for similar reasons as other couples. They have fallen in love, and want to share their lives and begin their families with a person to whom they are deeply committed.
An element of common sense is also at play here. With a struggling economy, it seems unlikely that businesses would turn down work from anyone.
And likewise, no couple wants to hire a photographer who, for whatever reason, doesn't like them. They are looking for the stability, joy and support that come with being married. They aren't interested in lawsuits.
And, in those states that have allowed same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license, there's been no increase in lawsuits against businesspeople.
Just this year, New Hampshire upheld its same-sex marriage law despite a challenge from critics, who had vowed to appeal it. Led by the Republican-dominated Legislature, New Hampshire kept its law.
After three years' worth of experience, lawmakers realized that the freedom to marry has had none of the disastrous consequences opponents had predicted.
Lawsuits have not increased. Religious freedom has not been threatened. Curriculum in schools has not changed.
In fact, what New Hampshire lawmakers found instead was growing public support. In a WMUR Granite State poll, just 27 percent of those asked favored repeal. And only 8 percent said that the law had had a major effect on their lives.
Anti-discrimination laws matter. They ensure that we all are treated fairly and as equal parts of the community -- values that are already an important part of Maine's character.
Each of us is entitled to our own opinion, and every religion is free to adhere to its own standards for marriage. That is guaranteed in current law and expanded by Question 1.
As New Hampshire has shown, there is no conflict between the free exercise of religion and allowing same-sex couples to marry.
George Burns is a lawyer in Portland who specializes in the litigation and arbitration of business and construction disputes.