BANGOR, Maine — Advocates for Maine’s gay and lesbian community hailed a federal judge’s ruling Wednesday that a California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
While emboldened by the decision in California, supporters of allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed in Maine agreed with opponents of same-sex marriage that the decision has no impact on the Pine Tree State’s own voter-approved ban.
Instead, both sides in the heated debate in Maine will be watching whether the California case makes it to the nation’s highest court.
“It doesn’t mean changes in the landscape in Maine at this moment, but it certainly gives us some encouragement,” said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.
“I don’t think it changes anything at all except it is likely to stir up a lot of anti-government sentiment” from weary voters, said Bob Emrich, a leader of the successful 2009 effort to overturn Maine’s gay marriage law.
In a highly anticipated ruling, U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker found that California’s gay marriage ban — known as Proposition 8 — violates the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses under the Fourteenth Amendment.
California voters passed the ban in November 2008, five months after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license,” Walker wrote in his 136-page ruling. “Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”
Despite the favorable ruling, gay couples still will not be allowed to wed in California. That’s because Walker said he wants to decide whether to suspend his order while Proposition 8 supporters pursue their appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Defenders of traditional marriage criticized Walker’s decision and said the fight is far from over.
“With a stroke of his pen, Judge Walker has overruled the votes and values of 7 million Californians who voted for marriage as one man and one woman,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement. “This ruling, if allowed to stand, threatens not only Prop 8 in California but the laws in 45 other states that define marriage as one man and one woman.”
It has been nine months since Mainers voted 53 percent to 47 percent to overturn a law that would have allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry. Although not as high profile as the fight over Proposition 8 in California, the debate in Maine attracted national media attention and funding from groups on both sides of the issue.
Emrich, a Baptist pastor from Plymouth, said he was discouraged by the judge’s ruling, but he ultimately expects the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold California’s voter-approved ban.
“Honestly, it’s disappointing but not a surprise given the judge,” Emrich said. “Judge Walker’s feelings had been known before.”
Meanwhile, Smith and other supporters of marriage equality were elated that Walker struck down Proposition 8 less than a year after Maine’s electorate also banned gay marriage.
“What this ruling conveys is what we all have known for a very, very long time, and that is denying the legal protections of marriage to gay and lesbian couples is unfair, it’s unjust and it’s unconstitutional,” Smith said.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, predicted that same-sex marriage will come to Maine and the nation eventually, and that future generations will wonder what all of the fuss was about.
But until then, Bellows said advocates for marriage equality have work to do.
“This [decision] won’t have real implications for Maine until the U.S. Supreme Court rules,” Bellows said. “In the meantime, all of us who care about marriage equality are continuing to educate all of our friends, our families and our communities about the importance of marriage equality.”
Last month, the National Organization for Marriage, which donated nearly $2 million to the fight against same-sex marriage in Maine, held a rally in Augusta to kick off a 19-stop bus tour of Eastern, Southern and Midwestern states.
Same-sex marriage supporters responded by scheduling their own press conference in the State House before the NOM rally.
During the NOM event, Brown told the crowd of more than 100 traditional marriage supporters that he fully expected to lose the California case.
But Brown said the bus tour was needed to raise much-needed money for the anticipated appellate and Supreme Court fights and to “grow an army of people” available to make its views known to Congress in the face of what he dismissed as judicial activism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.