Associated Press, 03/21/97 02:20
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A citizen-initiated bill that would ban same sex marriages has won grudging support from a divided Judiciary Committee.
Some legislators said they endorsed the bill Thursday to avoid having it go out to a referendum, where they feared the ensuing campaign would hurt gay rights and give the state a public relations black eye.
``I think this situation we're in is somewhat tragic,'' said Rep. Richard Nass, R-Acton.
The proposal would ban gay marriages in Maine and direct the state to refuse to recognize those performed in other states. Concerned Maine Families, which also led an unsuccessful 1995 campaign to restrict gay rights in Maine, gathered more than 62,000 signatures to bring the issue before the Legislature.
The group's leader, Carolyn Cosby, has accused ``gay militants'' of fighting to obtain legalized homosexual unions as a way to divert public attention from their real goal: obtaining special minority status.
Gay and lesbian leaders, backed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, assert they have as much right to the benefits of civil marriage as heterosexuals do.
Because the bill is the result of a petition, legislators have only three options:
-pass it as written and make it law.
-reject it, thereby sending it out for a referendum.
-send a competing measure out to referendum along with Cosby's proposal. This was done in last year's debate over forestry practices in the state.
``Sending this to a referendum at this time, I believe, is going to hurt gay people's fight for rights in the future,'' said Rep. Richard Mailhot, D-Lewiston, who voted for the bill.
Sen. John Benoit, R-Franklin, who said he also voted yes because that's what his constituents want, predicted the proposal would win in a referendum. He was echoed by several others.
Lawmakers are considering a separate bill that would bar discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.
At its afternoon session Thursday, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-3, with Nass voting ``no'' with reservations, to recommend the full Legislature pass Cosby's bill, ``An Act to Protect Traditional Marriage and Prohibit Same Sex Marriages.''
Five other committee members must still vote, but Senate Chairwoman Susan Longley, D-Liberty, who voted against the bill, said: ``You can be sure the majority will be `ought to pass.'''
Rep. Joseph Jabar, D-Waterville, said he supported civil rights for gays but could see how people would rally to defend the traditional institution of heterosexual marriage.
``I think the term marriage is like a flash point,'' Jabar said.
Twenty-nine states have some type of legislation prohibiting same sex marriages.
The rush by some states to pass laws banning same sex marriages came after Hawaii courts upheld the right of gays and lesbians to marry persons of their own gender.
That issue is on appeal.
Nass said he expected to switch his vote and join the majority after checking a court case.
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