‘Discrimination anywhere is discrimination everywhere’

Posted Jan. 23, 2009, at 6:20 p.m.

Shortly before the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday last week, I was invited to a ceremony in my district honoring the memory of our great civil rights leader. More than 300 schoolchildren from Mt. Desert Island had written letters to President Obama — letters about their hopes for our country and their dreams for the future. I asked one student to read her letter out loud. Surrounded by a television camera and reporters with steno pads, she was nervous, but she took a deep breath and read on.

“I dream of the time when people won’t make fun of others because of the clothes they wear or the way they talk,” she said. “When we all treat each other with respect.”

Respect. It is the essence of why last week I stood in the State House Hall of Flags and announced my sponsorship of legislation that would lift the legal ban on same-sex couples marrying in Maine. The bill — An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom — eliminates the discrimination in civil marriage that exists today in Maine law, affirms the freedom of individual religions to marry (or not marry) whom they choose, and recognizes valid, legal marriages from other states.

As a legislator I know that marriage is good for children and families and strengthens communities. The rights and responsibilities of marriage help spouses take care of each other in times of need, let them share their resources with each other, plan for retirement, and can help them get insurance to keep each other and their children healthy and safe. And if the worst should happen and one spouse dies, the law protects married people and their children in ways unmarried partners and their children simply aren’t protected.

As a husband and father, I know that marriage is much more than a package of legal rights. It is also about respect. Respecting and honoring the love and commitment of two people building lives, homes and families together. Respecting a couple’s promise to grow old together and to care for each other and their children no matter what. It’s about joining in the same traditions as our parents, brothers and sisters.

Treating our fellow citizens with respect means that we all must be equals before the law. Truly respecting all Maine’s families means that we must end discrimination against same-sex couples by opening the door to legal marriage. We cannot achieve this through a separate system or status reserved only for same-sex relationships. Separate, as we learned long ago, is not equal. If we aren’t treated equally, someone is suffering discrimination, and discrimination anywhere is discrimination everywhere.

After the students in Mt. Desert Island presented their letters to Rep. Elspeth Flemings and me last week, we passed them along to a group traveling to Washington, D.C. This past Tuesday those letters found their way to the Oval Office. The words of Maine’s children will serve as a reminder to President Obama of the tremendous job before him — before all of us — of reaching for our dreams and working toward a brighter future.

Sen. Dennis S. Damon lives in Trenton and represents District 28 in the Maine Senate.

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