AUGUSTA - Most members of a key legislative committee probably will vote to ban homosexual marriages, but a few members want to let the voters decide.
That's what a poll of the Judiciary Committee revealed as it gears up for a hearing next week on a citizen-initiated bill that would prohibit gays from marrying, and prevent Maine from recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere.
The Portland Newspapers polled all 13 members of the committee Friday. Seven - a slim majority - said they either ''definitely'' will vote to outlaw gay marriages in Maine, or they are ''likely'' to do so.
Five members said they will vote against the ban. A ''no'' vote would pave the way for a referendum. One member was undecided.
The prospect of a close committee vote suggests the ban could lead to intense debate in the full Legislature when the Judiciary Committee sends its recommendation to the House and Senate.
At the same time, the fact that a majority of committee members is behind or leaning toward supporting the ban is consistent with widespread speculation in Augusta: that the Legislature probably will enact the ban, rather than send the issue to voters through a referendum.
''I will bet the farm that (the Legislature) will vote to enact'' the ban, predicted Sen. Susan Longley, D-Liberty, who serves as co-chairwoman of the committee.
The issue arose because a group called Concerned Maine Families collected enough voters' signatures to force a referendum on banning same-sex marriages, unless the Legislature enacts the proposed ban.
That means lawmakers have only two choices: They can ban same-sex marriages themselves, or send the issue to the voters. Legislators cannot kill the proposed ban, because it is a publicly initiated bill.
Lawmakers offer a variety of reasons for their positions, underscoring the procedural complexity of the issue.
Some who plan to vote for the ban believe homosexuals should not be allowed to marry. Others who plan to vote for the ban want to avoid an expensive and divisive referendum campaign over what they view as a non-issue. They say the Legislature should enact the ban because the voters will do it if the Legislature doesn't.
Among the lawmakers who will vote against the ban, some support same-sex marriages. Others may oppose such marriages, but will vote against the ban because they believe all citizen-initiated bills should go to the voters as a matter of course.
Longley said she probably will vote against the ban because same-sex marriages are a bogus issue. No state currently licenses such marriages, and no one has filed legislation in Maine to legalize them.
Gay-rights activists are actively promoting a separate bill barring discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Longley, who supports that bill, said it is far more important than the proposed marriage ban.
Rep. Richard Thompson, D-Naples, who serves as co-chairman of the committee, said he probably will vote for the ban because he supports it and his constituents want it. Several committee members said the same thing.
''I think the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman should be maintained,'' said Rep. Paul Waterhouse, R-Bridgton. If same-sex couples want to share insurance coverage or other benefits, Waterhouse said, employers can address those issues.
Rep. Judith Powers, D-Rockport, another member of the committee, disagreed. Powers said she will vote against the ban because she views it as a form of discrimination. And, she said, ''there's no reason why citizens shouldn't have their say on that'' in a referendum.
Rep. Richard Nass, R-Acton, said he will vote against the ban, but not because he supports same-sex marriages. Nass said he hasn't made up his mind and he believes a referendum debate would be healthy.
''One of the benefits of a referendum is it generates a lot of public discussion,'' Nass said. ''This is not an issue where I feel there has been a lot of public discussion.''
Gov. Angus King has said he is leaning toward signing the ban into law if the Legislature passes it.
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