Gay Marriage

I guarantee that Maine will pass the Gay Marriage bill. I hope and believe that the legislature will pass it this year, but I know it will be law eventually.

Social progress moves in only one direction -- forward. The history of social progress in this country -- for concern after concern -- has followed an identifiable pattern. Often first steps affirming changing norms have come from a court recognizing that in an evolving society what was once unfamiliar and strange has become more common -- and that basic rights that once seemed inapplicable were being applied at an inexorable pace.

The African-American civil rights movement is the obvious case -- the long, slow progress from slavery, through segregation, to court-ordered and often military-enforced integration, to a fully integrated society.

A similar story can be told of women's rights, of the rights of religious minorities, of the rights of the disabled. Progress starts slowly, often with a path-breaking court case. In every case, there is a backlash, as those comfortable in traditional ways, frightened by change, recoil. But in this great land the basic goodness of the people prevails. And progress follows.

And so it will with the right of gays to marry.

The decision by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the 2003 Goodridge case, stating that a ban on gay marriage violated the equal protection clause of the Commonwealth's constitution, put gay marriage squarely on the public agenda. A backlash followed -- at the polls in 2004 and in state legislatures. Now, six short years later, the tide has clearly turned. Civil union legislation, thought radical when passed in Vermont nine years ago, defines the conservative end of the spectrum. Gay marriage has been approved not only in liberal states but in the conservative Midwestern state of Iowa, where a unanimous Supreme Court recognized the legal position adopted by Massachusetts.

The issue is moving from the courts to the state legislatures. One Maine state representative said to me that "the interests have taken their stands. Their positions are set in stone." A fair number of legislators are waiting to hear what their constituents say.

But voices on all sides have been heard around the nation -- and in Maine. Our State Constitution, like that of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is broader than the federal Constitution in banning discrimination. Article 1, Section 6 bars discrimination against any person, without specifying the protected class to which that person must belong. We did that because it was the right thing to do when the Constitution was adopted, and it remains so now.

For the state to sanction marriage between males and females -- and to give rights and recognition to those individuals -- but to deny the same recognition and rights to gay couples violates our Constitution. More than that, it violates the basic essence of who we are as a people. Leaders in our state government -- if they deserve recognition as leaders -- should recognize and proclaim that strongly.

They should listen to their constituents, but then weigh those views and lead. No one argues that any religious sect must recognize gay marriage. Priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, or tribal chiefs who believe in recognizing only heterosexual marriages would not be forced to perform gay marriages. To demand otherwise would violate our Constitution as well; the state cannot mandate religious beliefs.

However, state-sanctioned marriage is different; state legislators cannot give in to those traditionalists who are uncomfortable with gay marriage, who are somehow threatened by gay marriage, or who for whatever reason feel that gay marriages lessen their own marriage or parenthood. I value nothing more than my roles as husband and father. Neither my marriage nor my role as husband is lessened or threatened by the love and commitment of gay couples. My role as father is not compromised because two men or two women can raise children with equal success.

As a notary public and a loving uncle, I was honored to officiate at civil marriage ceremonies for two of my nieces and one of my nephews and their respective spouses. I also love my gay niece and my gay nephew. Should they ask, I would be honored to unite one or both of them with the person to whom they are committed in similar ceremonies -- and proud if I could do it "by the authority vested in me by the State of Maine."

We cannot dictate that others must like gay marriage. As with any changing social norms, acceptance will come with time. But we can and should stand tall for the principle that our state government will not treat couples and families differently because of the sexual orientations of the loving individuals involved.

L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.