AUGUSTA — Notaries public in Maine who officiate weddings of opposite-sex couples and refuse to marry same-sex couples could be subject to a claim of discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act, according to the Maine secretary of state’s office.
The notice sent to municipal clerks this week effectively means an all or none approach for notaries public when it comes to performing weddings.
Notaries public in Maine may, but are not required to, perform weddings, Cathy Beaudoin, who oversees the licensing of notaries for the Department of the Secretary of State, said in an email to municipal clerks dated Monday.
The email clarified for notaries public whether they would be required to perform same-sex weddings when the new law allowing gay couples to marry goes into effect Dec. 29. The Bangor Daily News was provided a copy of the email by the Bangor city clerk’s office.
“If you are a Notary Public who performs marriages and you refuse to perform a marriage for a couple due to a person’s race, color, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, creed, age, ancestry or national origin, you may be subject to a claim of discrimination.’’ Beaudoin wrote. “The new law authorizing same-sex marriage does not provide any exemption from liability for Maine Notaries who refuse to perform marriages for same-sex couples.”
There are about 25,000 notaries public licensed by the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions, a division of the secretary of state’s office, Barbara Redmond, who works in the bureau, said Wednesday in a phone interview.
The office does know how many officiate weddings. The office of vital records does not keep track of how many marriages are performed by clergy and how many are performed by notaries.
The powers of a notary public also include the administration of oaths or
affirmations, certification of an affidavit or an acknowledgment of instruments related to real estate transfers, the certification of copies of private documents and absentee ballots and the solemnization of marriages, according to the Notary Public Handbook and Resource Guide posted on the secretary of state’s website.
“Notaries most often witness financial transactions, but they are authorized to perform marriages,” Redmond said.
After the referendum allowing same-sex couples to marry was passed by voters on Nov. 6, a few notaries called the secretary of state’s office with questions about how the new law applied to them, Redmond said. A handful resigned.
The new law exempts clergy who object to same-sex marriage for religious reasons. It does not exempt notaries from officiating at same-sex weddings, even if they have religious objections, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine and the former co-chairman of Protect Marriage, which opposed the referendum.
Conley recommended that notaries public who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds but have performed traditional marriages in the past, stop officiating at weddings to avoid a possible conflict with the provisions of the Maine Human Rights Act.
“There are ambiguities in the law you could drive a truck through,” Conley said Wednesday. “The attorney general’s office and the secretary of state’s office wouldn’t talk about the possible implications before the election, so now we’re trying to identify and define where the conflicts are.”
David Farmer, who was spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage, the campaign that supported the referendum, said Wednesday there was no need to exempt notaries public because they are not required to perform marriages.
“Notary publics perform civil functions as opposed to religious functions,” he said Wednesday. “They are required to perform their duties as actors of the state. They can decide to not do weddings for any reason.”
Burke Soileau, 78, of Sebec has never performed a wedding. All he’s done as a notary is act as a witness for people voting absentee, but he was worried about how the new law would affect him.
“I’m a Catholic and under no circumstances would I do a same-sex marriage,” he said last month. “I’m on the list of notary publics [posted on the secretary of state’s website] and I’m concerned that if I refused to perform a same-sex marriage, I could be challenged legally.”
Soileau, who said last month that he was considering giving up his license, said Wednesday that he would renew it and continue helping local voters cast absentee ballots.
Dianne Lovejoy, deputy Bangor city clerk, performed between 35 and 40 weddings last year as a notary public. She said Wednesday that she is looking forward to a “surge in business” after Dec. 29.
“I love meeting the people,” she said. “It’s a fun thing to do. Everybody’s happy.”
Lovejoy, who said some people seek her out because of her surname, already has begun searching online for vows that would be appropriate for same-sex couples.
The deputy city clerk said she will be working at Bangor City Hall from 6 to 8 a.m. Dec. 29 issuing marriage licenses but will be too busy to officiate weddings that day. About half a dozen volunteers who are notaries will be on hand to perform weddings.