Now that the secretary of state has approved a ballot questio n that seeks to legalize same-sex marriage, Maine voters will likely again have an opportunity to fulfill the Constitution’s equality requirement.
With the question approved, a coalition of same-sex marriage advocates led by EqualityMaine is set to begin gathering signatures as early as this weekend. If that effort is successful, Maine voters would be asked in November 2012 this question:
“Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples that protects religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?”
A ballot measure is not a good way to ensure civil rights apply to all, but this is again the path Maine will take.
Much has changed since Maine voters in 2009 repealed a same-sex marriage law passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. John Baldacci, at the time, the first governor to sign such legislation into law. Earlier this year, the New York Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, approved same-sex marriage. That law is now in effect as is one in the District of Columbia. Three additional states — Hawaii, Illinois and Delaware — have approved civil unions.
What has not changed is this simple fact: Everyone must be treated equally under the state and U.S. Constitution. Denying civil marriage rights to same-sex couples violates that tenet.
Further, extending the right of marriage to a small segment of the population that has been excluded furthers the state’s interest in promoting stable families and communities.
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 earlier, 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.
In November 2009, that equality was denied to gay couples, not out of malice but because of strongly held beliefs about the importance of marriage and fears — played up by opponents of same-sex marriage — that gay sex would be taught in schools. Belief in the value of traditional marriage is important and should not be denigrated. To protect those beliefs, the approved ballot question seeks to make it clear that those who disapproved of same-sex marriages will not be forced to perform them.
This is appropriate. Religious groups should be free to set their own standards for their own members. But, those standards should not be imposed on everyone else.
Further, marriage is more than a religious institution. Although most who consider getting married aren’t thinking about taxes and health care, these are two of dozens of areas where the legal status of a couple matters. Extending marriage tax breaks and hospital visitation rights to only some couples is not acceptable.
The argument has already been made that this is not the right time to debate marriage again. The focus should be on jobs and building the economy. There is no right time to debate civil rights, however.
If the signature gathering effort is successful, that debate will begin again. When it does, Maine should expect a civil debate based on reason and fairness, not scare tactics.