New same-sex bill aims to avoid ‘culture war’

Posted March 19, 2009, at 8:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would extend the rights of spouses to domestic partners in Maine instead of allowing same-sex couples to marry was printed Wednesday.

Its sponsor, Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna, said Thursday that his measure would avoid a “culture war” over gay marriage but extend the same rights and responsibilities that married couples have to people enrolled in the state’s domestic partner registry.

A bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine was printed last week.

Proponents of same-sex marriage said they would oppose Fossel’s bill because it would create a separate institution for gay and lesbian couples while supporters of traditional marriage said they would oppose both bills.

Fossell said that his bill, LD 1118, An Act to Expand Rights for Maine Families, is a way lawmakers could find common ground if they wanted to without passing a law that most likely would face a people’s veto as the same-sex marriage bill undoubtedly will. The Alna lawmaker said that he filed the bill after Sen. Dennis Da-mon, D-Trenton, announced in January that he would sponsor a same-sex marriage bill.

“When Senator Damon announced his bill,” Fossel said, “I could see another culture war coming and that what’s happened. As with a whole lot of issues in the state, the money and energy always seems to be on one side or another, but the way communities work is in finding consensus.

“The question, for me, became how to ensure equal rights to everyone without changing the definition of marriage,” he continued. “I think we can do that because the way we make change in this country is we change the law, then we change minds, and the words and the definitions [in the vernacular] follow that.”

Fossel has said that his bill was not intended to create civil unions that have been made legal in other states.

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 Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Health.

Fossel’s bill states that “registered domestic partners have the same rights, protections and benefits and are subject to the same responsibilities, obligations and duties under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative rule, court rule, government policy, common law or any other provision or source of law, as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.”

Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, said that her group and others supporting same-sex marriage would not support the creation of the kind of institution Fossel’s bill proposes because “separate is inherently not equal.”

“It does not confer the same kind of dignity and respect marriage does,” Smith said of Fossel’s bill. “It’s being married that carries dignity and respect. Marriage says that we’re in a loving, committed relationship, that we intend to take care of each other and, maybe, raise children together. We don’t get that with domestic part-nerships.”

Michael Heath, executive director of the Maine Family Policy Council, formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine, said that his group is “very much opposed” to both bills.

“We reject Rep. Fossel’s bill based on the principle that the law ought not to recognize privileges or benefits outside of traditional marriage,” he said. “We’ve never supported civil unions and I can’t see us supporting domestic partnership laws.”

The council, along with the Maine Marriage Alliance, a coalition of pastors, churches and individuals, would support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman as the Maine Defense of Marriage Act now does.

Marc Mutty, director of public policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said that he has not read Fossel’s bill.

“My first reaction is that it won’t fly with this Legislature,” he said Thursday. “It appears that the proponents of same-sex marriage are not interested in compromise.”

Damon’s bill, LD 1020, 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.

• Recognize lawful marriages from other states.

• Repeal the Maine Defense of Marriage Act.

• 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.

A public hearing on LD1020 will be held before the Judiciary Committee at 9 a.m. Friday, April 24, at Cony High School in Augusta. Fossel’s bill is expected to be assigned to the same committee but its hearing date has not been set.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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