AUGUSTA, Maine — -Same-sex couples from around the state urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow them to marry in Maine while opponents asked that it be rejected.

About 3,000 people filed into the Augusta Civic Center for the daylong hearing on LD 1020 held Wednesday before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Supporters, many of whom were dressed in red, outnumbered opponents more than 4-to-1.

Attorney General Janet Mills, in an unscheduled appearance, urged lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage. She said that as the person charged with enforcing the state’s civil rights laws, passage of LD 1020 would make her job easier.

“People in my community do not mind if two people of the same sex live together, share property together, raise a family together,” said Mills of Farmington. “That is what we traditionally call marriage. The people of my community do care that there is enough love to nourish a marriage, enough love to grow a family, enough love to sustain a community.”

Deborah Deane, a former state Senate candidate from Brewer, disagreed.

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She told legislators they should represent the views of the people who elected them.

“It’s not about what you want,” she said. “It’s about what your district wants.”

The hearing came a day after a statewide poll found Mainers virtually split on the issue.

Kate and Erica Quin-Easter of Stockholm testified that they have done everything they can under existing law to protect each other. They even were married in Massachusetts five years ago, but that union is not recognized in Maine.

“During the past 10 years with lots of pieces of paper we’ve proven our commitment to each other over and over again,” Erica Quin-Easter said. “It’s time the state of Maine recognized our marriage.”

Like many opponents, Robert Simpson of Whiting referenced his strong religious beliefs. Simpson, who spent several decades in the banking industry, compared same-sex marriage to counterfeit money. Just as Maine would have no authority to issue its own Federal Reserve notes, Simpson said, state lawmakers do not have the power to approve what he called a “counterfeit” type of marriage.

“Marriage, the union of one man and one woman, was the first institution created by God for the benefit of mankind before he created government or the church,” Simpson said. “This bill would usurp God’s authority by equating the counterfeit of same-sex relationships with real marriage.”

Members of the clergy from around the state spoke for and against same-sex marriage.

Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, on behalf of the state’s 200,000 Catholics urged the Legislature “to support traditional marriage and vote against LD 1020.”

“Let me be clear,” he said. “Our objection to same-sex marriage is not based on a belief that gay and lesbian Mainers are somehow undeserving of civil rights because of their sexual orientation. We speak in opposition to same-sex marriage because we are deeply concerned about the institution of marriage itself — in this state and in this nation.

“Marriage as practiced in America today falls short of its ideals,” he said. “But redefining it will make our problems worse, not better.”

Although Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine did not attend the hearing, he submitted testimony in favor of the bill. The Worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is part, is deeply divided over the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.

“If we, as Mainers, believe that faithful, lifelong monogamous relationships are among the building blocks of a healthy and stable society, then it is in our interest to extend the rights and obligations of civil marriage to all Maine citizens,” Lane wrote. “To deny those rights to certain persons on the basis of sexual orientation is to create two classes of citizens and to deny one group what we believe is best for them and for society.”

Robert Talbot of Bangor, an eighth-generation Mainer who served as the first executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, compared the fight for same-sex marriage to the civil rights movement. Talbot, who is black, described the public reaction to his marriage to a white woman more than 40 years ago.

“It was wrong 40 years ago about interracial marriage, and it’s wrong now about same-sex marriage,” Talbot said as supporters cheered and rose to their feet. “The heart does not care about race, color or sexual orientation.”

Supporters also offered a standing ovation to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, who introduced LD 1020 as the hearing began.

“It’s fair. It’s right. It’s time,” said Damon, who called Wednesday’s hearing “one of the most meaningful of my legislative career.”

Gov. John Baldacci has said he still is considering whether to sign or veto the bill if it passes.

Opponents are expected to initiate a people’s veto referendum if the bill is passed.

In addition to LD 1020, committee members also heard testimony on LD 1118, sponsored by Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna. That bill would extend to people registered on the state’s domestic partner registry the same rights and benefits as those who are married but would stop short of creating civil unions.

Doug Kimmell and Ron Schwiser, a Hancock couple who have been together for 40 years, said there are dozens of benefits that married couples receive for which they are not eligible. The men also disagreed with suggestions that civil unions are equal to marriage.

“Even if we had civil unions, who would ever say that being in a civil union is the same as being married or that domestic partnership is the same as marriage?” asked Schwiser.

Rep. Philip A. Curtis, R-Madison, opposed both bills. He said the state would replace parents in the family and negatively affect curriculum in the education system by teaching children that “moms and dads no longer exist.”

Both sides called for a civil debate. The committee banned signs of all kinds from the Civic Center itself and the property on which it’s located.

Legislators for and against the bills, however, had not finished their speeches before Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Lawrence Bliss, D-Cumberland, gaveled for order and warned each side to be respectful of the other.

Maine lawmakers are considering the measures just two weeks after Vermont’s House overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact a marriage bill. New Hampshire’s Senate is expected to take up a House-approved same-sex marriage bill by the end of April. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa have been moved by courts to adopt same-sex marriage laws.

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the bills at 1 p.m. Tuesday in its room at the State House.

Kevin Miller of the BDN staff contributed to this report.