AUGUSTA, Maine -- A bill that could make Maine the fifth state to recognize same-sex marriages won a strong endorsement Tuesday from a legislative committee, setting the stage for votes by the Senate and House.
Eleven of the 14 Judiciary Committee members voted to pass the bill, while two voted against it and one member proposed sending it to voters in a November referendum. Gov. John Baldacci, a former opponent, is undecided.
"For me, it came down to discrimination. It's not there" under present law, said one of the supporters, Rep. Mark Bryant, D-Windham.
While the bill's strong committee support should carry some weight in floor votes, there is support in the Senate for sending the bill out to public vote. Even gay marriage opponents acknowledge the likelihood of a House vote in favor of the bill. Unless both chambers agree on a single version of the bill, it will die.
The initial test of Maine legislative sentiment came three weeks after Vermont's House overrode a gubernatorial veto and made it the fourth state to recognize gay marriages. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa have been ordered by the courts to do so.
Tuesday's vote in Maine came nearly a week after an estimated 3,500 people packed a public hearing at the Augusta Civic Center that lasted 12 hours. The public was not invited to speak Tuesday, but Judiciary deliberations were interrupted by an outburst by a protester, who shouted that the bill is morally wrong. She was escorted by police from the State House.
One of the committee opponents of the gay marriage bill cited strong constituent opposition, expressed in e-mails and other correspondence, in casting her vote.
"I will vote no because that's what 90 percent of my people told me to do," said Rep. Joan Nass, R-Acton.
Rep. Charles Kruger, D-Thomaston, summarized his support in a few words: "Live and let live."
The Senate chair of the committee, Lawrence Bliss, also spoke briefly for the bill.
"I want my kids to grow up in a place where everybody is treated equally, fairly and with respect," the South Portland Democrat said. "I am a gay man, this is extremely personal to me (but) I've tried to put that aside," Bliss said.
The lone referendum supporter, Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, said he prefers sending the question to voters, whose ability to judge for themselves shouldn't be underestimated.
"I don't feel I have any additional knowledge or know-how than the average person," Hastings said.
In a separate vote, the committee killed a proposal that would have broaden the rights of couples who register as domestic partners in the state.
"We don't have to have a cultural war if we don't want one," said Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, who saw his bill as a middle ground.