Attendees agree: Gay marriage debate was civil

Posted April 22, 2009, at 10:43 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Some shouted. Some choked up on tears.

Many quoted Scripture. Many more spoke of love, commitment and the true meaning of marriage in a society where divorce is all too common.

But despite the large crowds, long hours and intense passions, the supporters and opponents of allowing gay marriage in Maine were largely civil and, if not always respectful of each others’ opinions, appreciative of the legislative process.

“Overall, I would say we have managed ourselves quite nicely,” said Miriam Conners, a resident of Topsham and opponent of the proposal to allow same-sex couples to marry. “There are always a few.”

Members of the Judiciary Committee, who sat through the entire 11-hour public hearing, ran a tight and orderly ship by limiting each speaker to three minutes and alternating between sides every 30 minutes. When speakers ran long or the crowd became a bit unruly, the committee chairman gently reminded the audience of the rules.

There were no major dust-ups throughout the daylong hearing, whose attendees filled about three-quarters of the roughly 4,000 seats in the Augusta Civic Center during the morning.

Of course, there was plenty of emotion, passion and fiery testimony. That is inevitable when dealing with a controversial topic that touches on religion, equality, sexual relationships and child rearing.

Bill supporters bristled at references to perversion, talk of sexual orientation being a choice, and some of the most ardent Bible quoters who talked of doom for those who do not change their ways. The other side, meanwhile, got angry when some backers of the bill labeled all opponents as discriminatory or biased against gays and lesbians.

Bill supporters, many of whom came dressed in red to show their numbers, often gave loud, standing ovations to some of the more emotional or hard-hitting testimony. Supporters outnumbered opponents early on 4-to-1, according to some estimates, and by wider margins as the hearing progressed well into the evening.

Likewise, supporters occasionally showed their disapproval by standing up and turning their backs on some speakers, such as those who accused homosexuals of perversion or the two people who suggested that three-person marriages or marriages to pets could be the next step.

The Rev. Bob Emrich of the Maine Marriage Initiative, which opposes the bill, thought it was rude for bill backers to turn their backs on others while they were speaking. But Emrich wasn’t entirely pleased with some of the inflammatory things he heard from those on his side of the issue, and he apologized to the committee for speakers who in their passion let their “good manners” lapse.

“I was disappointed in some of the opponents of the bill who were far too personal in some of their comments,” he said. Overall, however, Emrich described Wednesday’s hearing as “very civil” and “as good as can be expected” with such a hot issue.

Even a forced evacuation of the Civic Center due to a fire alarm shortly before 5:30 p.m. was relatively orderly. The hundreds of people who quickly filed out of the auditorium waited patiently outside in the rain until police and Civic Center staff determined that burnt popcorn in the concession stands was the culprit.

“We are incredibly impressed at how quickly … you all filed out of here,” remarked Sen. Larry Bliss, the committee co-chairman, as the crowd reformed its lines behind the two microphones.

Charles Mitchell, who has been involved with his partner John LaBrie since the two met in Fort Kent nearly 20 years ago, described the tone of the hearing as “courteous but not always kindhearted.”

Mitchell and LaBrie spoke to the committee while surrounded by their five adopted children, ages 6 to 15. LaBrie said he was “appalled” by some statements from opponents on the topic of adoption, but he was also pleased that the issue is on the agenda.

“This is an amazing day,” LaBrie said. “Twenty years ago I don’t think we could have imagined this.”

Edie Hansen, who traveled from Orono with about 30 other members of the University of Maine’s Wilde Stein Alliance for Sexual Diversity, described the entire hearing as “really cool.” While she wishes there was more civil discourse between the two sides, Hansen said most people were willing to listen to others’ opinions.

“We have all tried to be as quiet, civil and respectful as possible,” she said.

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