Tuesday’s repeal of Maine’s gay marriage law shows that lawmakers moved too quickly and too far for the comfort of the majority of voters. In effect, the Legislature and governor chose the direct path to constitutionally mandated equality; voters have opted for the slower, more contentious route.
It is a common route.
Mainers have voted on gay rights four times since 1995, seesawing between extending rights and limiting them.
In 1995, voters soundly rejected an attempt to repeal local gay rights initiatives and prohibit the future adoption of others. In 1998 and 2000, voters rejected gay rights initiatives.
Then in 2005, an effort to repeal a Maine law that added sexual orientation to the Maine Human Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in the areas of housing, education and employment was rejected by a 55 percent to 45 percent vote.
In 2008, an initiative campaign to repeal Maine’s civil rights law and put in place roadblocks to gay marriages and adoptions was abandoned because supporters said they had a hard time gathering signatures.
Ninety years early, Maine sent mixed messages about extending voting rights to women, before finally doing so. After the Legislature strongly endorsed women’s suffrage in 1917, a people’s veto took back those voting rights. Two years later, however, Maine voters changed course and voted to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended the right to vote to women.
In both instances, the core issue is one of equality, as required and ensured by the state and federal constitutions.
That equality was denied to gay couples on Tuesday. It was denied not out of malice but because of strongly held beliefs about the importance of marriage and fears, played up by the Yes on 1 campaign, that gay sex would be taught in schools.
Political scientist Chris Potholm strongly criticized the No on 1 campaign for not clearly telling voters what bad things would happen if gay marriage was repealed: lost revenue and a “black eye for Maine,” for example. “Yes became the path of least resistance,” the Bowdoin College professor said.
Many who voted to overturn gay marriage also said they thought gays had enough rights already or that they could have everything but marriage.
The problem with this thinking is that the constitution says everyone must be treated equally, not nearly equally or that having a lot of rights is sufficient.
The way forward could include legal challenges, which have succeeded in other states, or a compromise like civil unions, which leading opponents of same-sex marriage said they do not object to.
“When history shines a spotlight on you, you have an opportunity to advance the cause or to let the cause slip backwards. I chose to move things forward,” Gov. John Baldacci, the first governor to sign a law allowing gay marriage, said before the vote.
Voters have chosen to take a step backward, but as past civil rights debates have shown, that direction is likely to change in the future.