The momentum for allowing gay couples to obtain marriage licenses surged dramatically again this week with two more state legislatures passing bills to provide for such equality, one of those governors immediately signing the bill, and the District of Columbia clearing its Marriage Recognition bill.
But the gains are almost certainly leading to a referendum in at least one of those two states—in Maine—and a showdown in Congress this year.
On May 6, the legislatures in Maine and New Hampshire finished their voting on same-sex marriage bills and sent them to their respective Democratic governors. And, in Washington, D.C., the City Council May 5 took its final vote to approve the legal recognition in D.C. of marriage licenses that same-sex couples have obtained legally elsewhere. Opponents in Maine have vowed a referendum and in D.C. have vowed a fight in Congress.
Now, in Congress and New Hampshire, some waiting begins.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch has opposed same-sex marriages but no position, yet, on a bill to establish equal rights to marriage for gay couples. And a spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon that the governor has still given no indication of what he plans to do when the bill reaches his desk.
But Rep. Jim Splaine, a key proponent of the bill, does not expect a veto and thinks the governor could let the measure into law without his signature.
Congress is both volatile and unpredictable. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement May 5 saying Congress "should not interfere" with the D.C. Council's governance. But because D.C. is a federal district—not a state—Congress has authority to review any of its legislation. And it has frequently used that authority to overturn pro-gay measures, including when Congress has been dominated by Democrats, as it is now.
Tears and laughter
But in Maine, Gov. John Baldacci surprised many by stepping out on the afternoon of May 6 and holding a press conference to sign the same-sex marriage bill.
Baldacci said he did not come to the decision "lightly or in haste" and noted that, while he had opposed same-sex marriage in the past, "I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law." He also acknowledged the likelihood opponents will call for a referendum.
"I recognize that this may not be the final word," said Baldacci, but added, "my responsibility is to uphold the Constitution and do, as best as possible what is right."
In the Maine House of Representatives, the discussion May 5 over the bill to legalize same-sex marriage was by far one of the most emotional debates among all that have taken place in state legislatures considering same-sex marriage bills—but not because the House was deeply divided.
Many representatives described personal transformations on the issue, explaining how they had come to see equal marriage rights as "the right thing to do."
Rep. Wendy Pieh, D-Bremen, who was one of only 39 representatives to oppose a state Defense of Marriage Act in 1997, noted that " [ a ] lot has happened in 12 years."
"It's a different day today," said Pieh. "We've moved forward. Our culture has changed. And I'm very proud to be supporting this majority report" for the same-sex marriage bill.
Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, called marriage equality the "civil rights issue of our time."
"We look over our shoulders now and wonder how we ever discriminated against women or because of race or religion," said Eves. "Someday soon, we will look again over our shoulders and wonder how we could have remained silent for so long" on marriage equality.
Rep. Veronica Magnan, D-Stockton Springs, said that, as a born-again Christian, she did not sign onto the original marriage bill but after much thinking and praying decided she could. With her voice choking, she said, "I stand to support this bill because it's the right thing to do."
Several senior white men stood to support the bill. One told of how he has been haunted since he was a young man because he had visited South Carolina and drank from a water fountain marked "For Whites Only." Another, a Republican, said that President George Bush "did the right thing when he backed off" his own opposition to same-sex marriage and "didn't buckle under to the evangelicals."
But there was laughter and opposition, too.
Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, caused the chamber to erupt in laughter when she said she had discovered an economic reason to oppose the bill: "the sheer number of wedding gifts she would have to buy" for her many friends.
Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, her voice choking back tears throughout, explained her anguished decision to vote against the bill even though her daughter is gay. Briggs said the bill had forced her to "confess" to her daughter how she really feels about her being gay—that "the deepest part of my soul tells me this is wrong."
Rep. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, quoted President Barack Obama's campaign statements that he is opposed to same-sex marriage.
"He would certainly not be opposing same-sex marriage if it was a true civil-rights issue," said Thibodeau. " … This isn't about civil rights, it's about a social agenda … that tears at the very fabric of our society."
But the House ultimately passed the bill May 5, as expected, by a vote of 89-58—after first defeating an amendment that sought to put the issue to voters. The bill then went back to the Senate May 6 and, after a brief discussion, passed 21-13.
Equality Maine Executive Director Betsy Smith said she was thrilled with the votes and with Governor Baldacci's quick action in approving the bill.
"We're so happy," said Smith in a phone interview with this reporter. The sound of happy people could be heard in the background.
Smith credited "tens of thousands of Maine voters" with contacting their legislators and urging support for the bill.
"It's so exciting," said Smith. "It's just—we have people standing around right now a little bit shell-shocked by how quickly things happened."
Now the timing is on opponents. They have 90 days from the day of adjournment to collect enough signatures to put the referendum on the ballot this November.
N.H. and D.C. on the brink
Gay-rights supporters in New Hampshire are optimistic their Democratic governor, John Lynch, will "do the right thing," too.
The House voted 178-167 May 6 to concur with a Senate version of its same-sex marriage bill. One representative then asked for reconsideration of that vote, but on a 161-185 roll call, that request failed.
Several members then sought to file "petitions of protest" with the Speaker, who accepted them and said only that they would be "noted in the journal."
After several procedural activities, the bill will now go to Gov. John Lynch. The governor's press secretary, Colin Manning, said May 6 the governor has given no indication of his intentions.
Perhaps the roughest waters stirring this week were in Washington, D.C.—the federal district whose self-governing measures are all subject to approval by the U.S. Congress. The D.C. Council voted 12-1 May 5 for its second and final vote on a bill that will give legal recognition to marriage licenses obtained legally by same-sex couples in other states and jurisdictions. Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty has made he clear he will sign the legislation; then, the measure goes through a 30-day review period by Congress.
Pelosi issued a statement immediately after the voting: "I have long believed that Congress should not interfere with internal decisions made by the District of Columbia's elected representatives— just as the Congress did not intervene in the State of New York's recognition of valid marriage contracts in other jurisdictions."
But that now seems unlikely. A large crowd of opponents staged a raucous demonstration after the vote this week, vowing to take their opposition to Congress.
"This is not over. We are going to the Hill with this issue," said opponent C.T. Riley, according to a Washington Post report. And a local pastor told the Post that opponents are already developing a "political and legal strategy" to stop same-sex marriage.
The lone vote against the marriage-recognition bill was stinging, too—it came from longtime gay-rights supporter Marion Barry. Gays helped Barry win election as mayor many years ago and, for many years, he was a strong advocate for treating gays equally. But Barry lost the mayor's office after being arrested and convicted of using crack. Now, he is back on the Council representing only one ward of the city, and his loyalties have changed.
The Post said Barry predicted there would be a "civil war" in D.C. if the Council should take up a bill to approve issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the District.
"All hell is going to break loose," Barry told the Post. "We may have a civil war. The Black community is just adamant against this."
Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) spokesman Brad Luna said that the organization is already preparing for a fight.
"We have already begun engaging our allies on Capitol Hill and are prepared to do anything we can to protect this vote of the DC City Council," said Luna. "At a time when our country faces serious issues, anti-gay legislators move forward at their own risk if they try to get involved in the District's affairs simply to score a few, cheap political points."
© 2009 Keen News Service