Marriage Turns a Corner

Posted April 08, 2009, at 5:08 p.m.

With this week’s legislative approval of same-sex marriage in Vermont and last week’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling overturning a ban on such unions, momentum has grown for gay and lesbian marriage. Equality, not momentum, is what should drive decisions on gay marriage in Maine.

Last week, the Vermont Legislature approved a bill allowing same-sex marriage. On Monday, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed the measure. The veto was quickly overridden by lawmakers on Tuesday. Vermont has no citizen petition process to overturn the law.

Vermont became the fourth state to allow same-sex marriages and the first to do so through legislative action rather than court order.

Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state was unconstitutional.

Jennifer Pizer, a national gay rights advocate, said this week would be seen as “a moment when our entire country turned a corner.”

Maine should also turn this corner, not because Vermont did, but because equality, which is guaranteed by our Constitution, demands it.

Separate is “inherently unequal.” That language from the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, is what lawmakers need to keep in mind as they consider two bills dealing with same-sex relationships.

LD 1118, An Act to Expand Rights for Maine Families, was recently printed. Its sponsor, Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna, said the measure would extend the same rights and responsibilities that married couples have to people enrolled in the state’s domestic partner registry. The bill, he said, would avoid a “culture war” over gay marriage.

The role of lawmakers isn’t to avoid culture wars — although they shouldn’t seek them out either — but to uphold the law and Constitution. Creating a separate system for gay couples, although an improvement over what exists now, does not achieve this.

Here, too, Vermont is instructive. It was the first state, nine years ago, to legalize civil unions. While this was a major step forward, it soon became clear that civil unions were not equivalent to marriage and efforts began to legalize same-sex marriage. Maine lawmakers can pass Rep. Fossel’s bill and pat themselves on the back. But, in time, they’ll be back to considering gay marriage.

The better course is to pass LD 1020, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, which would equalize same-sex couples with heterosexual couples when it comes to marriage. As important, the bill affirms the rights of religious institutions to control who may or may not marry within their faiths. These churches have matters of deep faith to consider before offering the rites of marriage to any couple, and a church could fairly decide that certain couples don’t adhere to its beliefs.

The experiences of other states — gay marriage legislation has also passed in the New Hampshire House — may make lawmakers feel more comfortable in their decision, but they should pass LD 1020 because it is the equitable thing to do.

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