Same-sex marriage spotlight on Maine

Posted April 15, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will be front and center next week in the nation’s deliberations over same-sex marriage.

The state will enter the national spotlight a few short weeks after the Iowa Supreme Court overturned laws barring same-sex couples from marrying. Vermont lawmakers recently passed a bill similar to the one proposed in Maine.

At least 2,000 supporters and opponents are expected to turn out Wednesday, April 22, at the Augusta Civic Center for a hearing on LD 1020, a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine. A hearing on a competing measure, LD 1118, which would extend the rights and benefits of married couples to people on the Maine Domestic Partner Registry, will be held at the same time.

The hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and end at 8 p.m. Doors to the Civic Center will open at 8 a.m.

The public hearing originally was scheduled to be held on Friday, April 24, at Cony High School in Augusta. The school auditorium and the cafeteria, set up for an overflow crowd, would accommodate only about 1,300 people.

Legislative leadership announced last Friday the move to the much larger Civic Center, which can seat more than 7,000. The date was changed because the Shrine Circus will be at the Civic Center in Augusta on Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25.

The committee will limit testimony from individuals to three minutes and switch sides every half-hour. Because of time constraints, about 200 people will be able to testify, but many more are expected to attend, according to supporters and opponents.

LD 1020 is sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, along with more than 60 other legislators, all but one of whom are Democrats. A provision of the bill would repeal the Maine Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The bill would not change the more than 300 federal laws that apply to heterosexual married couples, such as the tax code.

Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna, is sponsoring LD 1118 as an alternative to same-sex marriage. It is not intended to create civil unions, he said in January. Fossel also has said that he offered the bill as an alternative to Damon’s, which most likely will face a people’s veto initiative if it passes.

Supporters and opponents have called for a civil debate without the angry rancor that sometimes peppered the debate in the 1980s and 1990s over the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Maine Human Rights Act.

The Rev. Bob Emrich, a founder of the Maine Marriage Alliance, which supports traditional marriage, this week praised the decision to move the hearing to the larger venue but questioned why it was scheduled during school vacation week, when the Legislature also will be taking a week off.

“I wish they would have scheduled it at the Civic Center in the first place,” he said Tuesday. “When you have that many people together to discuss such a strong emotional issue, it’s better to have more room so people can stretch and move around.

“[Having it during school vacation week] really bothers me a lot,” Emrich of Palmyra continued. “A lot of families who might have liked to attend will be away on vacation and legislators won’t be around, either.”

Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, which is organizing supporters to turn out for the hearing, said the date change is “challenging for everybody.”

“Some people who had arranged to take Friday off now won’t be able to arrange their work schedules to attend,” she said Wednesday. “For some families, school vacation week was a good time for the hearing because they had more flexibility. For others, it was not.”

Marriage resources

For information on same-sex marriage, visit the following Web sites:

http://equalitymaine.org

www.mainelymarriage.org

www.mclu.org

For information on traditional marriage, visit the following Web sites:

www.mainemarriageamendment.com

www.mainefamilypolicycouncil.com

www.mainemarriageinitiative.com

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