It is a sure sign of progress that lawmakers will soon debate whether marriage or civil unions are the appropriate way to recognize gay relationships in Maine. Nearly five years after Maine voters reaffirmed civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, the debate has taken a big step forward. The path leads to only one place — full recognition of gay couples as equal to their heterosexual counterparts.
Earlier this month, Sen. Dennis Damon introduced legislation to allow gay couples to wed. The Trenton Democrat’s bill would eliminate Maine’s Defense of Marriage Act and replace it with language allowing any two “qualified” people to marry. Qualifications refer to age and familial relationship restrictions.
Although there was talk of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one woman and one man, that legislation was not introduced.
Instead, freshman state Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, sponsored a bill that would extend to couples on Maine’s Domestic Partner Registry the same legal rights and benefits as married couples. While this is an admirable attempt at compromise, it is inadequate.
In the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, the justices unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The ruling, that racial segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitu-tion, led to the desegregation of schools and was instrumental in the civil rights movement.
The same logic, that separate is not equal, applies to marriage as well. Creating a separate type of legally recognized relationship for gay couples, while a positive step forward, is not the same as allowing them to marry. Such a scheme, therefore, falls short of constitutionally mandated equality.
Opponents of gay marriage are likely to launch a people’s veto if either measure is passed by lawmakers, muting the argument that Rep. Fossel’s bill is a less contentious alternative.
There has been criticism of the timing of this debate as the state faces a massive budget shortfall. There is no perfect time, however, to debate civil rights.
The diversity of bills on recognizing same-sex relationships indicates that Maine is ready to have a civil debate over a very personal matter. There are strongly held beliefs on all sides of this issue. While the state’s definition of marriage is too narrow, traditional marriage through churches also de-serves respect. These churches have matters of deep faith to consider before offering the rites of marriage to any couple, and a church could fairly decide that certain couples don’t adhere to its beliefs.
In the end, the state must uphold the Constitution’s requirement for equality. It can only do this by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.