Baldacci speaking to reporters at the bill-signing ceremony today.
By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff
Maine and New Hampshire took steps toward the approval of gay marriage today, bringing to five the number of New England states that have moved to legalize marriage between same-sex couples in the past five years.
Governor John E. Baldacci of Maine became the first governor in the country to sign a gay marriage bill into law without being spurred to action by a court decision. In New Hampshire, legislators took the last of several votes approving a gay marriage law. Governor John Lynch, a Democrat like Baldacci, will have five days to veto the bill, sign it, or let it become law without his signature.
The Maine law has not yet taken effect, and will face a steep hurdle before any weddings are held. Conservative groups have pledged to bring the measure to a statewide vote, and are expected to collect 55,000 signatures in the next three months to put the new law on the ballot in November.
Around the country, polls show a majority of Americans still oppose gay marriage, five years after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it. But the signing ceremony at the State House in Augusta capped weeks of rapid progress for proponents in New England. Vermont approved gay marriage last month; Connecticut established the practice last fall after a court battle. Other recent decisions around the country have added to a sense of renewed momentum, in the wake of a ban on same sex marriage enacted last November by voters in California. Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, and the city council in the District of Columbia voted this week to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.
In Maine, supporters said the bill's smooth passage through the Legislature followed years of outreach and education that introduced voters and legislators to gay families and explained the importance of marriage to gay couples and their children.
Baldacci, who previously opposed same-sex marriage and supported civil unions, said his own views evolved over time.
"I did not come to this decision lightly or in haste," the governor said today at the State House. "I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage."
Observers were surprised at the relative ease of the Maine bill's passage, in a state that has not always embraced equal rights for gays and lesbians. In 1998 and again in 2000, Maine legislators voted to expand the law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, but both times voters narrowly struck down the measure in statewide referendums. The last attempt to change the law, in 2005, succeeded.
The success of the 2005 campaign -- as well as the swift recent progress of the gay marriage bill, which was introduced for the first time four months ago -- followed a change in the strategy of equal rights proponents, said Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono.
"They showed real families, in real situations, so instead of a theoretical argument, it was about real people," she said.
The recent, hard-fought referendum battles in the state forced more gay people to identify themselves and talk about the issue, said Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the Boston-based group that campaigned for the change. The debate made more Mainers aware of their gay friends and relatives, a powerful tool in shifting public opinion, according to experts.
"Once people know somebody who's out, they can't have the same stereotypes," Fried said.
Supporters also traced the sea change back to Massachusetts, the first state to enact gay marriage in 2004.
"Once there was marriage in Massachusetts, people could see what it looked like, and the truth emerged, that these families were not taking anything away from anyone else," said Bonauto. "Massachusetts obviously moved the conversation forward."
A Maine resident who married her partner in Massachusetts, Bonauto said the approval in Maine felt very personal.
"It's an amazing feeling to know your leaders are standing up for your family," she said.
Vermont and New Hampshire both enacted civil unions before legislators took up the gay marriage debate. In Vermont, the first state to legalize civil unions, in 2000, Republican Governor Jim Douglas vetoed the gay marriage bill, but legislators overrode the veto with a two-thirds majority.
Same-sex marriage supporters have not stepped up efforts to pass a law in Rhode Island because the current governor, Republican Donald Carcieri, has promised to veto it.
Gay marriage opponents in Maine will have 90 days from the Legislature's adjournment to collect enough signatures to force a referendum. The Maine Family Policy Council will lead the fight to block the law, said the group's executive director, Mike Heath.
He said he believes a large majority of Maine voters will reject gay marriage. But he acknowledged that public opinion is in flux.
"Things are always changing, and the question is, will it continue to change in this direction?" Heath said. "I don't know, but I will work to try and influence it."
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