Supporters called it an important step toward full equality for same-sex couples. Critics called it a dangerous political ploy for a president to decide which laws to enforce.
Mainers with strong opinions about same-sex marriage sounded off Wednesday on President Barack Obama’s sudden policy reversal on a federal law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage.
Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Justice Department would no longer defend the constitutionality of the 1996 law known as the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to one man and one woman. The decision affects two current legal cases in Connecticut and New York, but also it could reignite a bitterly divisive debate.
Timothy Rose, spokesman for the gay rights group Equality Maine, said he was heartened that the president’s opinion on same-sex marriage has evolved.
“This is really an issue of basic equality,” he said. “We want it clearly stated to children that Maine shouldn’t allow two distinct classes of family.”
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said Wednesday’s news was worth celebrating, but he also said the fight for full equality likely is going to end at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Rev. Bob Emrich, who was heavily involved in the successful 2009 campaign to overturn a Maine law that would have allowed same-sex marriage, agreed that the issue is headed for the country’s highest court.
“I think supporters are trying to regain momentum on this issue even though states have continually voted on this,” Emrich said. “I’m very troubled by people that want to redefine marriage would just ignore the law.”
The Maine Legislature passed a bill in 2009 allowing same-sex marriage that was signed into law by then-Gov. John Baldacci. After petitioners gathered more than 55,000 signatures to force a statewide vote, Mainers overturned the law by a 53-47 margin in November 2009.
The federal law commonly known as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, easily passed through the U.S. House and Senate and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Rose, however, said attitudes have shifted considerably in the past 15 years, as evidenced by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Maine Republicans, splitting with their party to repeal the military policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Emrich said he doesn’t believe there has been a significant shift in attitudes.
“Polls are not the same as voting,” he said. “The votes have been clear. I think the [Obama] administration is trying to force the issue.”
Same-sex marriage has been as divisive in Maine as it has in other states that have grappled with the issue. During the 2009 people’s veto campaign, opponents of same-sex marriage in Maine outspent supporters and were financed heavily by the National Organization for Marriage and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine.
Nearly every major newspaper in Maine endorsed keeping Maine’s same-sex marriage law, and polls leading up to the vote indicated the law would be upheld.
“Even since 2009, many Mainers have changed their minds,” Heiden said. “I think as more people learn about same-sex couples, the more they realize that they are treated unjustly.”