BANGOR, Maine — Religious leaders across the state held news conferences Thursday to urge Mainers to end marriage discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and called for the state to create same-sex civil marriages.
“We feel a moral obligation at this pivotal time to raise our voices on behalf of Mainers who are denied that most basic human right — the right to marry and form a family with the person of their choice,” said the Rev. Mark Doty, pastor at the Hammond Street Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Bangor.
Simultaneous press conferences also were held at churches in Portland, Auburn and Hancock.
Maine law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The state does not have a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman as some states do.
“We are speaking here today in support of civil marriages for same-sex couples because assuring full human rights for all citizens advances the common good,” said the Rev. Marvin Ellison, a Presbyterian minister and professor of ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary.
Doty announced that more than 120 religious leaders from 14 different faith traditions across Maine have formed the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine. The coalition, he said, is not a political action committee, but a group of clergy acting as individuals to raise awareness about the issue of same-sex marriage.
Ministers who joined the coalition signed a declaration. They agreed to “commit ourselves to public action, visibility, education, and mutual support in the service of the right and freedom to marry.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland would oppose efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine, Marc Mutty, director of the Office of Public Affairs, said Thursday after the press conference.
The Family Policy Council of Maine, formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine, also has said it would be “working to defend marriage.” Executive Director Michael Heath announced in September that opponents of gay marriage were forming a group called Marriage Alliance. It would work to amend Maine’s constitution, according to information posted on the council’s Web site.
Earlier this year, the Christian Civic League launched a petition drive in support of “traditional marriage,” but abandoned it when it did not reach its signature goal in the June primary.
Clergy who appeared at the press conference in Bangor represented the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Church. Both denominations, along with Reform Judaism, allow the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy.
The list of clergy who support the coalition, however, includes ministers in the United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations that continue to debate the issues of gay marriage and the role of gay clergy on national and international levels.
The declaration stated that the signers respected the fact that debate and discussion would continue in many of their religious communities concerning the theological and ethical issues of marriage. It also said that members of the coalition supported the right of all religious communities to make their own decisions about whom to marry within their faith traditions.
“We draw on our diverse religious traditions to arrive at a common conviction — the state of Maine should allow same-sex couples to share fully and equally in the legal institution of marriage and do all that it can to eradicate current discrimination and the lingering effects of past discrimination against our lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters,” the declaration continued.
The coalition’s announcement came a week after EqualityMaine, a group that has lobbied for decades on civil rights issues, announced it had gathered more than 33,000 names and addresses at the polls on Election Day in support of marriage for same-sex couples.
EqualityMaine also has announced on its Web site that with the results of last week’s election there are “pro-equality” majorities in the Maine Senate and House of Representatives.
The timing of the ministers’ press conferences coincided with the beginning Wednesday of marriages for same-sex couples in Connecticut, Doty said, and a celebration next week of the fifth anniversary of the Massachusetts court case that allowed gay marriage in that state.
Doty said coalition members share a concern for the children of same-sex couples in Maine harmed by their parents’ exclusion from marriage. Children in these families may lack health benefits and other critical protections that would extend to married parents, he said.
Coalition members also point out that committed gay and lesbian partners who have loved and cared for each other for decades often still feel vulnerable in old age because they cannot marry and safeguard their relationships with the protections marriage gives nongay couples.
“I have seen many loving, committed couples in my life,” the Rev. Becky Gunn, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, said at the press conference. “Some choose to marry, some do not. But there are those who would choose to marry that are not currently allowed to marry. These same-sex couples do not have the same civil rights as married heterosexual couples. This is ethically and morally untenable.”
“I don’t think [the coalition] represents a great majority of the religious community in Maine,” he said. “They represent marriage as a civil right and believe that anyone that meets certain criteria should be able to marry.
“Marriage is the building block of society and includes procreation,” Mutty continued. “Without procreation — and same sex couples can’t — they’re missing out on a huge piece of the puzzle. The argument is not any more complicated than that.”
The diocese has supported health benefits and hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples and other benefits that often are afforded married heterosexual couples, Mutty said.
Anything short of marriage is not enough, according to Gunn.
“I cannot fathom a God who would discriminate based on gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity,” she said. “My Universalist tradition believes that God loves everyone equally. Why then should we deny anyone who loves the right to make a lifelong marriage commitment?”