AUGUSTA — A bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine won the endorsement of a panel of lawmakers Tuesday afternoon, setting the stage for a larger and more lively debate in the full Legislature.
The Judiciary Committee voted 11-2-1 in favor of a bill, LD 1020, which would repeal Maine’s prohibition on same-sex marriages. Two committee members opposed the bill, while a third proposed sending the issue to a statewide referendum.
Several lawmakers who supported the bill couched their votes in terms of civil rights and equality.
“I want my kids to grow up in a place where everyone is treated equally and fairly and with respect,” said committee co-chairman Sen. Lawrence Bliss, a South Portland Democrat who is openly gay.
Bill opponents predicted that the measure, if passed by the Legislature, would inevitably end up going to referendum, where they believe it would be defeated. They also vowed to continue fighting the issue in the Legislature.
“I think the Senate will reverse this,” said the Rev. Bob Emrich of the Maine Marriage Initiative. “I’m extremely and gravely disappointed but I’m not very surprised.”
The committee vote took place less than a week after more than 3,000 people crammed into the Augusta Civic Center during an 11-hour public hearing on the bill.
Testimony on the issue was about equally divided during last Wednesday’s hearing, although supporters of allowing gay marriage significantly outnumbered opponents in the crowd.
For supporters, the bill is about ending what they see as state-sanctioned discrimination against gay and lesbian couples currently denied many of the legal and financial benefits of marriage. Many opponents, meanwhile, cite strong religious beliefs that the institution of marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman.
During discussion leading up to Tuesday’s vote, several committee members said they were obligated to look at the bill through the prisms of law and Maine’s constitution, not religion. The bill would allow clergy or religious institutions to refuse to marry gay or lesbian couples.
The bill would also change state law so that same-sex marriages legally performed in other states would be recognized in Maine.
One opponent on the committee, Rep. Joan Nass, R-Acton, said she felt an obligation to go along with the desires of the majority of her constituents. And 90 percent of the people who contacted her asked her to vote against the bill.
Tuesday’s hour-long work session was interrupted at one point by a woman shouting that there was “only one true marriage” and accusing the lawmakers of immorality and lack of leadership.
The protester, who held a handwritten sign stating “The Judiciary does not have the moral authority to redefine marriage,” continued to shout after leaving the committee room. She was eventually escorted into an elevator by Capitol police.
Several lawmakers acknowledged that the issue will likely end up in voters’ hands. Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, is offering his own version of the bill that would send it out to a referendum.
Under legislative rules, all three reports — the majority “ought to pass,” Hastings’ referendum proposal and the “ought not to pass” — will to go the full Legislature. The bill has considerable support, as evidenced by the roughly 60 co-sponsors.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, said afterward that he was overjoyed by the bipartisan support his bill received in committee. Damon said he respectfully disagreed with Hastings’ desire to let voters decide.
“If the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s had only been sent out to voters, it would have failed,” Damon said in a statement. “We are elected to make these decisions, tough as they may be. It is what we are here to do.”
It was unclear Tuesday when the bill may come up in the Senate or House. Gov. John Baldacci has not taken a stand on the bill yet.