It’s a footnote today.
But in 2009, Maine made history.
On May 6 of that year, then-Gov. John Baldacci became the first governor in the United States to sign legislation passed through the state Legislature and without court intervention to allow all loving, committed couples to marry.
It was a monumental moment for the state and a movement that had spent decades fighting discrimination targeting gay and transgender people in Maine.
“I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law. … [T]he Maine Constitution states that ‘no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protection of the laws,’” Baldacci said after signing the marriage bill.
The bill “guarantees that Maine citizens will be treated equally under Maine’s civil marriage laws, and that is the responsibility of government,” he said. “My responsibility is to uphold the Constitution and do, as best as possible, what is right.”
The groundbreaking law was repealed later that year through a People’s Veto, and same-sex couples in Maine were forced to wait another three years for marriage. In 2012, voters changed their minds and Maine became the first state in the country to pass marriage equality in a statewide ballot. (Disclosure: I was part of that campaign and worked for Baldacci in 2009.)
On Friday, the United States Supreme Court came to the same conclusion as Baldacci and Maine voters. In a beautifully written opinion from Justice Anthony Kennedy, state bans on same-sex marriage were struck down.
While many of Kennedy’s arguments resembled Baldacci’s and relied upon due process and equal protection claims, it’s his last lines that will be remembered:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Growing up Catholic in Bangor, Baldacci was torn on the question of marriage. During the legislative debate on the bill, he listened for hours to the testimony taking place at the Civic Center in Augusta. Each night, he took home a stack of constituent mail, and sometimes he called the people who had written to him – on both sides – to talk about marriage.
In the end, three ideals guided Baldacci’s decision: His respect for the law and the Constitution; his empathy and compassion for others; and the commitment to do the right thing.
Looking at Augusta today, these are also the very traits that are missing in Gov. Paul LePage. And Maine is worse for it.
After Friday’s ruling, there’s the temptation to think that allowing same-sex couples to marry was inevitable. It was not.
It took decades of work and fearless pioneers, such Mary Bonauto, who argued the marriage case before the Supreme Court, Dale McCormick who was the first openly gay member of the Maine Legislature and countless others who were courageous in the face of hatred and bigotry.
There are still concerted efforts in Maine and around the country attacking gay and transgender people.
Indiana faced the rage of the nation after passing a law targeting LGBT people. Michigan has made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against gay and transgender people. North Carolina allows magistrates to ignore the law and opt out of performing marriages if they don’t want to serve same-sex couples.
Twenty-eight states have no protections against discrimination targeting gay and transgender people. They can be denied housing, fired or turned away from a lunch counter based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But there is a growing national consensus rejecting discrimination. Nearly 70 percent of people support protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.
For every step we take forward, there are those who would pull us back: Our responsibility is to do, as best as possible, what is right.