AUGUSTA, Maine (BP)–Maine’s Democratic governor signed a bill Wednesday legalizing “gay marriage,” but the state’s citizens likely will have the last word on the issue with a unique state law known as the “people’s veto.”
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.
But Baldacci had barely finished signing it when all eyes turned to New Hampshire, where the state House sent a bill to Democratic Gov. John Lynch Wednesday afternoon that could make the Granite State the latest to redefine marriage. 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 or e-mail Lynch. (Lynch’s office number is 603-271-2121.)
If the latest survey is accurate, New Hampshire citizens are opposed to the bill. Cornerstone Policy Research, which opposes the bill, released a poll Thursday whereby every household in the state — that’s over 400,000 — was called. Of that, 50,000 households answered and went through with the automated survey and by a margin of 64-36 percent said they agreed that “marriage between one man and one woman should be the only legal definition of marriage” in the state. A company called ccAdvertising out of Virginia conducted the survey.
Although social conservatives in the region believe they have at least a decent chance in seeing Lynch veto the bill, they were doubtful in recent days that Baldacci would side with them, because he has signed other bills protecting homosexuality and transgenderism.
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 (10 percent of the total vote of the most recent gubernatorial election) — the law would not go into effect until the people vote. It is called a “people’s veto,” and conservative leaders released a statement Thursday saying they had filed the paperwork that morning with the secretary of state’s office to begin the process.
“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.”
The conservative National Organization for Marriage — which played a critical role in helping pass Prop 8 in California — sent out an e-mail after Baldacci signed the bill saying it was joining the people’s veto effort in Maine and would devote staff, volunteers and resources.
If past people’s veto efforts are any indication, the signature drive 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 in the summer of 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.
A Pan Atlantic SMS Group poll of 400 Maine adults in April found that given three options, 39 percent supported “gay marriage,” 34.5 percent same-sex civil unions and 23 percent opposed all legal recognition for homosexual couples.
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.
In New Hampshire, if Gov. Lynch 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. To call or e-mail New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch click here.