By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
NEW YORK, May 6 -- Gay rights advocates celebrated swift and unexpected twin victories in New England on Wednesday when Maine became the fifth state to legalize same-sex marriage and New Hampshire's legislature shortly afterward sent a marriage equality bill to the governor.
If Gov. John Lynch (D) signs the New Hampshire bill or allows it to become law without his signature, New Hampshire will become the sixth state to legalize marriages of same-sex couples, leaving Rhode Island as the only New England holdout.
The movement in Maine and New Hampshire came faster than even gay rights advocates had expected and with bipartisan support in both places, suggesting that the question of same-sex marriage is losing some of its resonance as a divisive societal and political issue, at least in the Northeast.
"There is no doubt there is a shift in attitudes and opinions," said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Family Equality Council, which advocates legalization of gay marriage. "We're seeing it in poll after poll. We're seeing it at lunch counters and over kitchen tables."
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Iowa now allow gay men and lesbians to marry their partners. California briefly allowed such unions before a voter-backed referendum last year made same-sex marriage illegal -- and left in limbo the thousands of couples who had wed in the interim. The California Supreme Court is set to rule imminently on whether that referendum was constitutional.
The Maine law came after a 21 to 13 vote in the state Senate, following an earlier state House vote, which sent the bill to Gov. John E. Baldacci (D), who has spoken against same-sex marriage. But Wednesday morning, according to some involved in the issue, Baldacci told legislative leaders that if the bill passed, he wanted it on his desk within two hours.
In a statement, Baldacci said that although he was not raised to believe in same-sex marriage, he has come to see it as a civil rights issue. "I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law," he said.
Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, which had been pushing the issue, said: "We were not expecting it. What was not a surprise was he heard the thousands and thousands of Maine voters who raised their voices."
The Maine law now faces the likely prospect of a referendum challenge much like California's. In Maine, citizens who collect 55,000 signatures can file a "people's veto" to have a law passed by the legislature overturned, and opponents of same-sex marriage have said they plan to do so.
The law would not be enforced until the challenges were exhausted, and the first possible date for a referendum would be November.
Smith predicted the gay rights advocates could prevail in tiny Maine, since they would need about 200,000 supporters in a referendum to keep same-sex marriage legal. "We can talk one-on-one to 200,000 voters," she said.