After a three-hour debate in which a few lawmakers broke into tears, the Maine House on Tuesday approved a same-sex marriage bill, then sent it back to the Senate for a final vote.
Representatives voted 89-57 to give the bill final House approval after rejecting an amendment that called for a November referendum. The Senate, which has endorsed the measure in preliminary votes, is expected to take a final vote Wednesday before the bill can be sent to Gov. John Baldacci. The Democratic governor remained undecided on the measure.
Even if Baldacci signs the bill to make Maine the fifth state to authorize gay marriages, enactment of the law could be sidetracked. Opponents said Tuesday they would take steps to force a repeal referendum under Maine's people's veto law. Meanwhile, supporters chose to savor the House decision, which drew cheers and applause in the chamber.
The debate followed a theme — civil rights vs. preservation of a fundamental social institution. Some lawmakers called the vote historic and the most important they would cast; a few shed tears as they spoke for the bill and several spoke of mental anguish in reaching a decision.
"I haven't slept very well over the last two weeks," said Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, who voted for the bill. "It is awkward being a legislator, especially on days like this."
Supporters said the issue boiled down to equal protection under the law.
"This legislation will change the lives of Maine citizens — a change for the better," said Rep. Patsy Crockett, D-Augusta. "To me, this is a bill that is long overdue."
Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation urged lawmakers to pass the bill even though, as a tribal representative, he didn't get to vote on it.
"You know there's only eight letters in the word equality. This state is almost 200 years old. We haven't gotten there ... I know. I come from a group of people who knows what the word equality means. And we also know what it doesn't mean. It would be nice, ladies and gentlemen of the House, if we could today become fully cognizant of the meaning of those eight letters."
During the debate, which remained civil throughout, opponents rejected the argument that the issue revolves around discrimination.
"Marriage between one man and one woman is a basic building block of a strong society and we must keep it intact," said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. "Destruction of the institution of marriage — that's what this bill is all about."
Others, including Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, urged lawmakers to send the question to voters.
"We should not be changing (the marriage law) here," said Celli.
Four states now allow same-sex marriages. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa have been ordered by the courts to do so, and Connecticut has since enacted a law codifying the court ruling. Vermont in April passed a gay marriage law over the governor's objection.