AUGUSTA — The fate of a measure to allow same-sex marriages in Maine rests with the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee following 11 hours of tug-of-war testimony April 22 at the Augusta Civic Center.
The number of people observing the proceedings, which initially numbered in the thousands, steadily declined through the day, but the pleas of those who went to the microphones remained every bit as passionate. Some speakers focused their three minutes on philosophical or moral arguments while others relied on study data and accounts of published news reports. The majority of them, whether they were for or against gay marriage, based their testimony on personal experiences.
Diane Sammer of Harpswell told a story about her partner Pam, who died suddenly last April. The couple had drawn up a collection of legal documents that spelled out their wishes if either of them died, giving each other full decision-making authority. They weren’t enough.
“When it came time for cremation, they asked for her family to consent. I was shocked,” said Sammer. “After 28 years together, I was her family. It was with me that she discussed what she wanted in the event of her death.
“In the eyes of the law, I was nothing to her.”
Sammer was required to sign a document making herself financially liable if anyone sued the funeral home because of her decisions.
“At that moment, I was not her spouse. I was not her family. In the eyes of the law, I was nothing to her,” said Sammer.
Sammer’s focus on the legal barriers facing same-sex couples was a common argument. Other proponents of the measure said they sought recognition for same-sex couples in their communities, churches and families for their serious, lifelong commitments to each other. Among those who made that argument was the Rev. Mark Worth of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Castine. Worth spoke on behalf of 166 congregational ministers in Maine who support same-sex marriage, many of whom stood with him at the microphone.
“We believe that love is the most holy and universal of bonds,” he said. “We are here to bear witness that many religious leaders and communities support same-sex couples.”
Among the opponents, there were also many religious leaders, including Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Portland.
“Traditional marriage is facing challenges from many different angles; the issue of same-sex marriage is but one of them,” said Malone. “Please remember that marriage is not simply an economic compact. In nearly every culture in the world, it’s a social institution.”
The Rev. Steve Young of the Penobscot Bay Family Church in Cushing, said homosexuality is “risky behavior” that has many negative consequences.
“Don’t be fooled by religious deceivers. Jesus taught only heterosexual marriage,” he said. “Homosexual activity is vile and shameful. A vote for gay marriage is a vote to give the almighty God the finger.” Young’s comments and others caused many same-sex supporters to stand and turn their backs.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills caused a stir with her testimony in support of same-sex marriage.
“The Marriage Equality Act, I believe, is a fair thing,” she said. “It will stabilize, not destabilize relationships. It comports with our Maine tradition of independence, compassion and community values.”
Several of the opponents bristled at Mills’ testimony.
“It’s not about civil rights,” said Mary Rose Pray of Wiscasset. “Racism is about civil rights. Marriage is about the future of society, families and our children.”
Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County), the primary sponsor of “An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom,” said April 22 was one of the proudest days of his legislative career.
“Every day I’m responsible for doing the people’s business. Never before have I felt it more than today,” he said. “This bill is fair. This bill is right. This bill’s time has come.”
The April 22 hearing was also for “An Act to Expand Rights for Maine Families,” which was sponsored by Rep. Leslie Fossel (R-Alna), in an effort to create a domestic partner registry in Maine.
After the Judiciary Committee makes a recommendation on the bills — which was scheduled to happen during a committee work session Tuesday at 1 p.m. — the matter will go to the full Legislature. Judging by some lawmakers’ comments at the April 22 hearing, there is plenty of opposition there, too.
“Either of these bills, if enacted into law, will have a negative impact on the state of Maine as we know it,” said Rep. Philip Curtis (R-Madison), the assistant House minority leader. “These bills do absolutely nothing to unite us a legislators or unite us as citizens of the state of Maine.”
If the Legislature adopts either of the bills, they would go to Governor John Baldacci for a signature. Baldacci has not said whether he would support same-sex marriage.