PORTLAND, Maine — The two organizations behind Maine’s multimillion-dollar campaign over gay marriage held a spirited but respectful debate Wednesday evening before a crowd composed largely of supporters of Maine’s same-sex marriage law.
The televised debate, held at the University of Southern Maine, touched on education, the definition of marriage, child rearing by same-sex couples and many of the other key issues dividing voters.
“Frankly, we expect this to be a razor-thin margin,” said Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director for the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who was speaking on behalf of the No on 1/Protect Maine Equality campaign. “We understand this is a change and there are people who are not comfortable with it.”
Question 1 on the November ballot asks voters whether they want to reject the law, passed by the Legislature earlier this year, that grants same-sex couples the right to marry. If Question 1 is rejected, Maine would join five other states where gay marriage is legal but would be the first in the nation where voters endorsed the law.
Brian Souchet with Stand for Marriage Maine, the organization behind the repeal effort, stated repeatedly that his camp defines marriage as when one man and one woman “come together to bring forth the next generation of society.” Instead of gutting the existing marriage law, Souchet said, Maine should address legal inequalities through the state’s domestic partner registry or through other legal changes.
“We do not need a radical redefinition of marriage in order to provide civil liberties protections to all Mainers,” Souchet said.
But Bonauto replied that only “civil, governmental marriage” can provide protection to all couples and families such as hers.
“All of us deserve no less than equal protection,” she said.
There were few, if any, revelations or new arguments heard during Wednesday’s debate. Instead, Souchet and Bonauto offered different predictions about how allowing same-sex marriage will affect families and society in general.
Souchet predicted that businesses could face lawsuits or loss of licenses if they deny services to married couples of the same sex. And although the now-suspended law would allow clergy or churches to refuse to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, Souchet said religious colleges or churches could face legal challenges if they disallow married, same-sex couples to live together in student housing or refuse to help gay or lesbian couples adopt children.
Asked how allowing gay couples to marry could possibly affect existing marriages, Souchet replied: “While it may not impact my particular relationship, it severely, severely affects the society we live in.”
But Bonauto methodically disputed Souchet’s statements, pointing out that the flood of lawsuits and dramatic societal changes never materialized in Massachusetts or other places where same-sex marriages were legalized.
She also countered Souchet’s arguments that marriage is an institution revolving around procreation by pointing out that law does not include ability to reproduce as a criteria. In fact, two 85-year-old nursing home residents with no chance of having children can legally marry, she said.
Bonauto did agree, however, in her own way that legalizing same-sex marriage could have dramatic effects.
“If the ‘no’ side does win, I am fairly certain that we are going to see an outbreak of happiness,” she said to laughs from the audience.
An estimated 500 people — the vast majority wearing red or a “No on 1” sticker to signal their support for Maine’s same-sex marriage law — attended the debate, which was sponsored by WMTW-TV, the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Waterville Morning Sentinel. The crowd mostly complied with requests to keep quiet during the hour-long discussion, although there were occasional outbreaks of claps or hisses.