- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) | A legislative hearing to extend gay marriage to Maine took on the atmosphere of a religious revival Wednesday as ministers made impassioned speeches for and against the bill before thousands of cheering spectators packed into a civic arena.

Gay couples also took turns pleading for recognition of their partnerships, while opponents warned that state sanctioning of same-sex marriages would fracture a basic building block of society.

The Judiciary Committee hearing drew so much interest that traffic became snarled early in the day. Gay marriage supporters hoping to build on momentum in the region arrived wearing red, and they gave a standing ovation to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon, as he opened the hearing. Police said it drew 3,500 to 4,000 people.

“This bill is fair. This bill’s time has come,” Mr. Damon, Trenton Democrat, said to a roar of approval. “It recognizes the worth and dignity of every man and every woman among us.”

Mr. Damon’s proposal, backed by more than 60 legislative co-sponsors, would repeal a state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman and replace it with one that authorizes marriage between any two people.

Also up for a discussion was a separate bill to allow civil unions - which offer many of the same rights as marriage - sponsored by Rep. Les Fossel, Alna Republican.

Gay rights activists want to get laws allowing same-sex marriage passed in all of New England by 2012, and they’re already halfway there. Vermont’s legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto two weeks ago to enact a same-sex marriage law. Connecticut and Massachusetts also allow gay marriage.

New Hampshire’s Senate is expected to take up a House-approved bill later this month. In Rhode Island, a bill is awaiting a vote but is not expected to pass.

Outside of New England, only Iowa allows gay marriage, though a handful of states allow similar arrangements.

The marriage effort’s prospects in Maine are uncertain. The legislature could approve it or reject it, or the state’s voters could have the final say. Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who previously opposed the idea, now says he is keeping an open mind.

The legislature has the option of sending the issue to voters in a referendum. Or, if the measure becomes law, opponents could initiate a “people’s veto” effort.

The earliest a Judiciary Committee vote is expected would be April 28. The bill then goes to the Senate, then the House before it could be sent to the governor’s desk.

The gay marriage bill led to television ads encouraging people to attend the committee’s public hearing on Wednesday. About 800 people arrived an hour before the hearing began, said Dana Colwill, building director.

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