Maine House passes gay marriage bill

Posted May 05, 2009, at 12:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – The Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday in an 89-57 vote enacted a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine.

A packed gallery cheered as the bill passed and Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, lowered her gavel after nearly three hours of often emotional debate. The vote positioned Maine to be the fifth state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage. Before enacting the bill, the House, in an 85-62 vote, defeated an attempt to send the matter to a statewide referendum.

The bill now must go back to the Senate where final enactment is expected as early as this morning. The Senate last week voted 21-14 in support of the measure.

Gov. John Baldacci has not said whether he would sign the marriage bill into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. It could be on his desk as early as Thursday. While more Democrats than Republicans voted for the bill, the vote did not break down along party lines.

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“I’ve been very surprised over the past few months to see how many people have been moved to support the bill,” Rep. James Martin, D-Orono, said after the vote. “I’m also glad we’ve moved beyond the contentious debate over the issue that’s taken place over the past 25 years. It was a very civil debate today.”

Martin told his fellow House members that he and his partner of 14 years had a commitment ceremony nine years ago. “We’re looking forward to making it legal next year,” he said. But even if the governor signs the bill into law, its enactment could be sidetracked.

Opponents said Tuesday that they would take steps to force a repeal referendum under Maine’s people’s veto law. To do so, they would need to gather 55,087 valid signatures in the 90 days after the adjournment of the session, according to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, was among the bill’s opponents. He said a better option was LD 1118, an alternative bill that died in committee. That bill would have extended the same rights and benefits of marriage to couples on the Maine Domestic Partner Registry and would not have changed the definition of marriage.

Like many lawmakers who spoke during the floor debate, Rep. James J. Campbell Jr., R-Newfield, drew on his own personal experience in supporting the bill. He said he would celebrate his 53rd wedding anniversary on June 29.

“They have been the best 53 years of my life,” he said. “I don’t want to stand here and say that two men and two women cannot have what I’ve had for the past 53 years with my wife.”

In opposing the bill, Rep. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, raised a subject supporters of traditional marriage have talked about for the past 20 years during previous debates over gay rights.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “This isn’t about civil rights. It’s about a social agenda that tears at the very fabric of our society.”

As lawmakers cast their votes, Bev Uhlenhake watched the live video Web stream of the House debate on her computer in her Bangor office.

“I watched it happen as it was happening and it was amazing,” she said Tuesday after the vote.

Uhlenhake, her partner, Sue Uhlenhake, and their 1-year-old son, Ben Uhlenhake, all of Brewer, were among the more than 3,000 people who turned out for a public hearing on the bill last month before the Judiciary Committee.

The two women, who urged passage of the bill, had a commitment ceremony in 2006.

“We plan to get married as soon as legally possible,” Bev Uhlenhake said Tuesday.

The likely prospect of a statewide vote didn’t curb supporters’ excitement over the House victory, or the ultimate fate of same-sex marriage in Maine.

“I don’t expect the citizens of Maine to vote to discriminate,” she said. “They’ve proven before that they won’t.”

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