AUGUSTA, Maine (BP)–Maine’s Democratic governor signed a bill Wednesday, May 6, legalizing “gay marriage,” setting the stage for what likely will be a high-profile and costly “people’s veto” effort to overturn the law and restore the traditional definition of marriage.
With his signature Gov. John Baldacci, who is in his final term, became the first governor in U.S. history to sign a gay marriage bill. Vermont’s legislature legalized “gay marriage” in April by overriding the veto of its Republican governor.
For days, conservative leaders in Maine privately said they believed Baldacci would sign the bill, as he has done other bills protecting homosexuality and transgenderism. Maine’s neighbor to the west could soon join it; in New Hampshire, a bill that would legalize “gay marriage” passed the state House by a vote of 178-167 Wednesday, sending it to Democrat John Lynch, who is undecided on it. Opponents of that bill have been running TV ads, showing Lynch saying he opposes “gay marriage.” The ad asks him to stick to his word and urges citizens to call Lynch.
Technically, Maine is the fifth state to redefine marriage to include homosexuals, but because of the state’s unique constitution, citizens can gather signatures and place the law on the ballot. If that happens — approximately 55,000 signatures are required — the law would not go into effect until the people vote. It is called a “people’s veto,” and conservative leaders already have said they’re going to go that route.
“All hope is not lost,” Michael Heath, executive director of the conservative Maine Family Policy Council, which supports the people’s veto effort, told Baptist Press. “Unlike Massachusetts and other states, we can go directly to the ballot. This is a direct democracy mechanism that will be utilized.”
If past people’s veto efforts are any indication, the signature process should be successful. Twice in the past 11 years conservatives in Maine gathered the required number of signatures to overturn sexual orientation laws, something less controversial than “gay marriage.” Conservatives won one vote and lost the most recent one.
A vote on “gay marriage” — which will take place either in November or June 2010 — would be the costliest and most high-profile people’s veto in state history, Heath said. Opponents of the new law warn it will weaken religious freedoms and parental rights and lead to the requirement of “gay marriage” being taught in school as morally acceptable.
Baldacci signed the bill May 6 about an hour after it passed the state Senate on a final vote, 21-13, that morning. It passed the House, 89-57. Baldacci in the past said he opposed “gay marriage” but, after the bill began advancing, said he was keeping an “open mind.”
“Even as I sign this important legislation into law, I recognize that this may not be the final word,” Baldacci said in a statement. “Just as the Maine Constitution demands that all people are treated equally under the law, it also guarantees that the ultimate political power in the State belongs to the people. While the good and just people of Maine may determine this issue, my responsibility is to uphold the Constitution and do, as best as possible, what is right. I believe that signing this legislation is the right thing to do.”
Heath said that for any people’s veto to be successful, the state’s likeminded groups — such as Catholics and evangelicals — must work together.
“I think if the folks who are sort of natural allies come together and make a very strong argument in support of marriage … I think the people of Maine will vote in a strong majority against gay marriage,” he said.
But if those natural allies don’t work together, he said, “it’s anybody’s guess” as to how the vote will turn out.
Steve Rowe, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bath, Maine, a Southern Baptist congregation, told BP he had urged people to call their legislators and oppose the bill. The Bible, he said, “is clear” on the issue in stating that homosexuality is sin. Redefining marriage, he said, “cheapens marriage and threatens the family.”
“At the same time, I have encouraged our people to love everyone, express kindness, and build relationships even with people we disagree with in order to earn an opportunity to be heard,” he said. “Actions do speak louder than words. I think Christians have been unfairly painted as ugly and cruel. We are not the cruel unkind people we have been accused of being. We must stand on what is right and not be afraid. But, we must always remember that Jesus loves everyone and died for all people and that we have been called to share the love and hope that only Jesus can provide.”
The state has debated issues related to homosexuality before.
In 1998, a people’s veto was successful in overturning a bill that would have placed sexual orientation alongside protected classes such as race and giving it civil rights status in employment and housing. The people’s veto passed, 51-49 percent.
Two years later, in 2000, the legislature put the issue directly on the ballot, asking voters again if they wanted to add sexual orientation to state laws. Again, they rebuffed the legislature, 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent.
Finally, in 2005, the sexual orientation law was enacted, when it passed the legislature and a people’s veto failed, 55-45 percent. Opponents say the law infringes on religious freedoms.
“We’ve got a long way to go, and there are a lot of forces interested in this on both sides for many, many reasons,” Heath told BP, referencing the fight to overturn the new “gay marriage” law.
If New Hampshire’s governor signs the bill legalizing “gay marriage,” then Rhode Island would be the lone New England state not to legalize marriage for homosexual couples. A bill has been introduced there but is not expected to get far because the state’s Republican governor opposes it.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. To read how “gay marriage” impacts parental rights and religious freedom click here