AUGUSTA, Maine — A state senator from Hancock County is sponsoring a bill to allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine.
Sen. Dennis S. Damon, D-Trenton, announced at a press conference Tuesday that he is submitting legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. His proposed bill, which has not yet been drafted, would include language to allow “two persons to marry.”
Members of the Maine Freedom to Marry Coalition, composed of several organizations, including Equality Maine, supported him. The coalition also is partnering with the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, which represents 140 clergy members from 14 religious denominations.
“It is time to fully end discrimination here in Maine,” said Damon, who is serving his last term in the Senate due to term limits. “With our traditions of tolerance and fairness, Mainers want to make sure that all couples are treated equally in the area of marriage. It is especially important to us that the children of same-sex couples, several of whom are with us here today, can be secure in the knowledge that their parents are married, just like anybody else.”
Representatives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Maine Family Policy Council, formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine, said after the press conference that their organizations would oppose the bill and support efforts to repeal it if it becomes law.
Gov. John Baldacci, in a statement issued shortly after the press conference, said he would pay close attention to the debate but is not yet prepared to support same-sex marriage. He did not indicate whether he would sign or veto the bill if it passed.
Late last year, the Maine Marriage Alliance, headed by the Rev. Bob Emrich of Palmyra, announced that it would spearhead an effort to pass an amendment to the state Constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
That proposal does not have a sponsor.
Gay marriage is being debated elsewhere in the region.
In New Hampshire, a bill has been submitted to replace the term “civil union” with “marriage” in the state’s 1-year-old civil union law. Vermont, the first state to recognize same-sex couples with its civil unions law, now is likely to consider a gay marriage bill.
At the press conference in Augusta Tuesday, Damon was flanked by same-sex couples who want to marry and obtain the same legal protections afforded men and women who tie the knot in Maine.
The senator said that his bill would:
— Codify civil marriage as the legally recognized union of two people.
— Eliminate discrimination to allow any two eligible people, regardless of sex, to be issued an application for a marriage license.
— Affirm religious freedom so that religious institutions continue to have control over their own religious doctrines and teachings regarding who may marry within each faith as set forth in the Maine and U.S. Constitutions.
— Recognize lawful marriages from other states, removing a barrier akin to those enacted to prohibit mixed-race marriages.
Victoria Eleftheriou and Carla Hopkins, both 37 and of Mount Vernon, appeared with their 3½-year-old son, Eli Hopkins, at the press conference in the Hall of Flags to support the bill and explain why they want to marry.
“Victoria and I want to get married because we’re committed to spending the rest of our lives together and we want our son to have the legal security of having married parents,” Hopkins said. “Every day, we worry that if something happens to one of us, the other person would have a tough time providing for our son.”
Hopkins said that she and her partner recently asked their young son if they were married.
“He replied, ‘Yes, because you have rings,’” she said, adding that they were exchanged seven years ago in a commitment ceremony that is not legally binding in Maine. “We have rings, so in Eli’s world, we must be married.”
Hopkins said she and Eleftheriou worry that when their son grows older, if his parents still are not allowed to marry, he will think that his family isn’t equal to his friends’ families that are headed by heterosexual married couples.
The legal protections afforded married couples in Maine are included in more than 400 state laws and more than a 1,000 federal laws, according to Mary L. Bonauto, civil rights project director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. She outlined some of the many legal protections that married couples are entitled to under Maine law, including recognition and support of the couple as an economic entity for taxes, financial transactions and government benefits.
Many health insurance policies provide automatic coverage for spouses, and that additional coverage is not considered taxable income, a benefit not available to same-sex couples, Bonauto said. She also described the strong safety net that exists for married couples that protects a surviving partner and children when a spouse dies, in everything from automatic rights to make funeral arrangements to systems of workers’ compensation and disability benefits.
“The protections of marriage are embedded in many areas of Maine and federal law,” Bonauto, who worked on the legal cases that brought same-sex marriage to Massachusetts and Connecticut, said in a press release. “There is no way to replicate them privately. And we need to make sure these protections are available to gay and lesbian families who are willing to take on the responsibilities of marriage.”
Michael Heath, head of the Maine Family Policy Council, who attended the press conference as a spectator, said his organization and its supporters would work to preserve traditional marriage. He said that any bill proposing gay marriage should include a referendum provision.
Heath said gay marriage supporters are making a mistake running their bill now, when so much else is at stake because of the recession and state budget problems.
“What they suggest is a redefinition of marriage,” Marc Mutty, director of public policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said after he watched the press conference. “To change the meaning of marriage to add same-sex couples would open it up to all kinds of other things.”
In his own statement, Gov. Baldacci said, “In the past, I have opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions. I have been a tireless defender of equal opportunity and have fought to end discrimination in employment, housing and throughout society. Unfortunately, there is no question that gay and lesbian people and their families still face discrimination.
“This debate is extremely personal for many people,” he continued, “and it’s an issue that I struggle with trying to find the best path forward.”
Referring to the state’s facing a more than $800 million budget shortfall, the governor added, “Right now, I’m focused on creating jobs and doing what I can to help our economy recover from an unprecedented recession. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided or turned against one another during this crisis.”
Responding to criticisms about the timing of the bill in light of the budget woes, Damon said the measure is “long overdue.”
“The breadth of support for this bill demonstrates that Mainers value fairness,” Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday. Besides Equality Maine and the MCLU, the Freedom to Marry Coalition also comprises the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the Maine Women’s Lobby, Maine Children’s Alliance and others.
“All loving, committed couples deserve the dignity and respect, as well as the legal rights and obligations, that civil marriage brings,” Bellows said.
Once the bill is drafted, it is expected to be referred to the Judiciary Committee, which would hold a public hearing on the measure later this session.
Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders have announced its intention to secure same-sex marriage rights in all six New England states by 2012. Massachusetts and Connecticut already recognize same-sex marriages.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.