Two bills compete to define marriage

Posted Jan. 16, 2009, at 8:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A freshman Republican legislator is offering an alternative to the same-sex marriage bill a veteran Democratic senator is sponsoring.

The bill, submitted Thursday by Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna, would extend to couples on Maine’s Domestic Partner Registry the same legal rights and benefits as married couples, according to a press release issued Friday by the House Republican Office.

A bill that would have called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was expected to be submitted by House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy R-Newport, The Associated Press reported earlier this week. But it had not been submitted by 4:30 p.m. Friday, according to the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes Office.

Friday was the last day that bill titles could be submitted to the office, where the official language of legislation is developed. Bills submitted after Friday would be considered only if approved by the legislative leadership.

Efforts Friday night to reach Tardy were unsuccessful. His spokesman, Jay Finegan, said earlier in the day that Tardy would not comment on an amendment to ban gay marriage.

In the press release announcing Fossel’s legislation, he said that “currently, there are legal and technical differences that create disadvantages for many Maine families. My bill aims to remove these differences from Maine law.”

Fossel believes, according to the press release, that all couples, whether married or not, deserve equal treatment in the eyes of the law.

He also predicted that the same-sex marriage proposal introduced earlier this week by Sen. Dennis S. Damon, D-Trenton, would “engender an emotional debate in the Legislature and, if passed, would face a people’s veto initiative.”

“We don’t need a hot, divisive debate with siege guns,” Fossel said. “Democracy is all about finding a middle ground. This bill might not be perfect for everyone, but it is the only bill with a chance of succeeding without immediately triggering a referendum to repeal. I suggest we’re far better off with an equitable solution than with animosity and division.”

It was unclear Friday whether the bill, titled An Act to Expand Rights for Maine Families, would create civil unions or repeal the state’s Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a women.

At a press conference Tuesday in the State House, Damon announced that he was submitting legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. His proposed bill, which also has not been drafted, would include language to allow “two persons to marry.”

Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage said Friday they would oppose Fossel’s bill. Members of the Maine Freedom to Marry Coalition, which appeared with Damon at his press conference, said it did not go far enough. Representatives of the Maine Marriage Alliance, a group that supports traditional marriage and op-poses same-sex marriage, said it went too far.

“Separate is not equal,” Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, that supports Damon’s bill, said Friday of Fossel’s proposal. “It’s important that we honor gay and lesbian couples with the dignity and respect that marriage brings as well as the legal rights and protections marriage offers.

“We are heartened that Rep. Fossel recognizes how important these benefits are,” she continued. “We hope, however, that he will want to work with us. History teaches us that creating separate institutions for minority groups is still discrimination.”

Mary L. Bonauto, civil rights project director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, also said Friday that Fossel’s bill was not a substitute for marriage but recognized that such an offering by Republicans was unexpected.

“It’s extremely encouraging that both sides of the aisle recognize that it is no longer acceptable to deny legal rights and protections to gay and lesbian families in Maine,” she said. “In the legal arena, the rights of domestic partners is extraordinarily limited and does not offer all the protections a spouse gets.”

A proponent of traditional marriage, the Rev. Bob Emrich of the Maine Marriage Alliance, said Friday that he did not expect his group would support Fossel’s bill and did not think it would dampen the debate around the issue. He also said he was disappointed that a marriage amendment will not be considered this session.

“If Rep. Fossel thinks this is not going to be contentious or divisive, he has not been paying attention,” said Emrich, of Palmyra. “He doesn’t understand what is going on in Maine.”

Emrich also thanked Tardy for giving serious consideration to sponsoring a bill calling for a constitutional amendment.

“We’re disappointed that we don’t have a bill in,” he said. “We would like to have that debate and would really like for the people of Maine to have a chance to vote on that. Instead of dealing with the heart of the issue, which is marriage, we’re nibbling at it around the edges.

Efforts to reach Marc Mutty, director of the Office of Public Policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, for comment on Fossel’s bill were unsuccessful Friday. He has said in the past that the diocese would support extending some additional legal benefits to domestic partners. After Damon’s press conference, he said the diocese would oppose efforts to allow same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Michael Heath, head of the Maine Family Policy Council, formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine, said Friday that his group most likely would oppose Fossel’s bill but he wanted to see the language before making a definite decision.

He said Tuesday that his group would oppose Damon’s bill.

Gov. John Baldacci, through his spokesman, declined to comment on both bills until they have been drafted.

Under Maine’s Domestic Partner Registry, registered partners are accorded a legal status similar to that of a married person with respect to matters of probate, guardianships, protection from abuse and related matters. The registry is housed within the Office of Health Data and Program Management in the Bureau of Health of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Both Fossel’s and Damon’s bills will be referred to the Judiciary Committee.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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