AUGUSTA, Maine — Seven years ago, Bev and Sue Uhlenhake of Brewer were married in a big wedding in the Dominican Republic, though when they came home to Maine their marriage was not legal.
Then, in December 2012, same-sex marriage became legal in Maine after the state’s voters approved a citizens initiative calling for gender-neutral marriage equality.
Bev and Sue waited until March to make their marriage official under the new law. Because of their prior commitment to each other, they opted for a small ceremony with only 11 people including themselves and their three children.
Then came the question of what to do with their marriage certificate and what happened proves that the milestone was bigger than they were ready to admit.
“We didn’t frame it or anything; we always planned for it to just go in the safe,” said Bev Uhlenhake. “But I think it was on our refrigerator for a good six or eight months.”
The Uhlenhakes were one 1,530 gay couples married in Maine in 2013, representing more than 16 percent of all the marriages performed during the first year of the state’s same-sex marriage law. They attended about half a dozen same-sex marriages in 2013 and Bev said weeks and months went by with new Facebook pictures of happy new married couples appearing nearly every Monday.
“A lot of these people were together for many years before they finally got married, so they went very small,” she said. “It’s celebratory, yet at the same time it feels weird to celebrate something that should have been allowed a long time ago.”
According to data from the Maine Office of Data, Research and Vital Statistics, there were a total of 9,524 marriages in Maine between December 29, 2012, when the law took effect, and Thursday, its one-year anniversary. Marriages between women outpaced marriages between men by a tally of 970-560.
The Rev. Becky Gunn, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, also marked the passage of the law in a special way, though she wasn’t married herself.
“I had taken a personal stance that I would marry no one until I could marry all loving couples,” she said. “My belief is that marriage is a commitment between two individuals who love each other. The law as it was then defined [before the referendum] diminished the love between two same-sex partners and I just felt that was wrong. … We fought long and hard to get this passed and I see only positive things coming from it.”
Even with the marriage certificates piling up, there are still some who are vying to alter the law in order to protect ideological opponents. Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, is attempting to do just that with LD 1428, An Act to Protect Religious Freedom. Burns said the bill — which aims to allow individuals to exercise their religious freedoms, including choosing not to be involved with same-sex marriages — will be considered in the legislative session that begins next week. The bill says that a government agency cannot infringe on religious rights and in cases where there is no way to avoid it, the government must proceed in the “least restrictive means possible,” according to Burns.
“It’s an effort to enshrine what I feel the Maine and federal constitutions provide for,” he said. “I went to great length to try to take out the stuff [from the bill] that people find objectionable and controversial.”
Since the same-sex marriage law took effect, polls have shown increasing support for same-sex marriage among Mainers. About 47 percent of voters cast ballots against same-sex marriage in November 2012, but a few months later, opposition to gay marriage in Maine had declined to about 38 percent, according to Public Policy Polling.
Ian Grady, a spokesman for EqualityMaine, which was a leading proponent of legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine, said the number of legally married same-sex couples in Maine might actually be higher than 1,530 because the state’s figures don’t include Mainers who were previously married in other states or Canada.
“Some folks say that doesn’t seem like that many,” said Grady. “I would guess that all told, there are thousands of married couples in Maine.”
Uhlenhake said she thought there would have been more than 1,530 same-sex marriages in Maine in 2013.
“Proportionally, it seems low,” she said. “I would have expected a higher ratio, but that’s 1,500 families that are more protected than they were before.”