AUGUSTA, Maine— A bill to allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine took a major step forward Thursday when the Senate voted 21-14 in support of the measure after impassioned and poignant arguments from both sides.

The hallway outside the Senate chamber was an emotional scene moments after the votes as advocates for gay-marriage rights — many of whom have been campaigning for months on the issue — wept and embraced.

“I would say I am proud of my senators for standing up for civil rights,” said Rick Salomon of Rockland.

“I’m just happy that I’m going to get married,” added a tearful Greg Lawrence, Salomon’s partner.

Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, still have a way to go before any same-sex marriages are legally recognized in Maine.

The House is expected to debate and potentially vote next Tuesday on the bill, LD 1020, and the Senate would then get at least one more vote. If the bill passes both chambers — and it appears to have significant support in the House — it will go to Gov. John Baldacci, who has yet to take a position publicly on the issue.

The bigger fight, however, could come this November if opponents follow through on their pledges to put the issue in voters’ hands through a statewide referendum.

The Senate rejected a referendum proposal Thursday, but both sides predict opponents will have little trouble gathering the roughly 55,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot. One critic of the bill, Mike Heath with the Maine Family Policy Council, wasted no time and announced a people’s veto petition drive Thursday.

“This is one of those questions that must be submitted to the public, and I don’t think there is any question in anybody’s minds that it will be,” said Sen. David Hastings, the Fryeburg Republican behind Wednesday’s unsuccessful referendum proposal.

The Senate vote came one day after New Hampshire’s Senate voted to allow gay marriage and slightly more than a week after more than 3,000 people filled the Augusta Civic Center for a public hearing on LD 1020.

Most of the senators’ arguments echoed those made by the public last week, with supporters describing same-sex marriages as a civil right and opponents citing their religious beliefs.

Many of the senators said they struggled with the issue, which has generated enormous amounts of correspondence to lawmakers.

“No matter how I cast my vote, I will betray half of my constituents and friends,” said Sen. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat who ultimately supported the bill.

The vote was largely along party lines.

The only Democrat to vote against the measure, Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, said he voted the way he believed the majority of his constituents would want. Two Republican lawmakers voted in support of the bill: Sen. Christopher Rector of Thomaston and Sen. Peter Mills of Skowhegan, who ultimately believes the issue should go to the voters.

“Until the people of Maine are ready for it, it isn’t going to become law,” Mills said afterward.v

One of the more emotional testimonials came from Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono. Schneider said she would have preferred to settle the issue with a “dry, legal package of rights” for couples rather than get into the moral and religious arguments.

But Schneider said she had an answer to some ardent opponents who questioned the quality of life children would enjoy being raised by gay or lesbian parents.

“I am a person who is very blessed to have grown up with two very caring, loving parents, one of whom happened to be gay,” she said.

But Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, suggested that by passing LD 1020, the Legislature would be effectively changing a definition of marriage that has been a part of history.

“When the next group comes along and asks for a re-definition, how will we argue no?” she said. Weston predicted that years down the line, some lawmakers who supported the bill will find themselves saying, “I never meant for this.”

The initial hour-long Senate debate was respectful and, unlike a committee work session earlier this week, took place without any interruptions from members of the public.

Sen. Kevin Raye, an opponent who argued that same-sex couples can already accomplish their goals without redefining marriage, said he hoped that the public debate going forward would be more civil.

“Nobody on the left or on the right deserves to have their fundamental tenets of their deeply held faith denigrated because of their positions,” said Raye, R-Perry.

Supporters of the bill acknowledged that they had not yet won their fight, although they clearly regarded Wednesday’s vote as a major victory. Lucie Bauer of Rockport said she was thrilled that Maine was a step closer to recognizing her marriage to her partner, Annie. The two were married during a ceremony in California last August.

“That was a bittersweet occasion: wonderful to be married but bitter because it wasn’t recognized in my home state and community,” Bauer said.


The Roll Call

The measure now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration next week.

In initial voting after extended and emotional debate Thursday, the Senate voted 20-15 to give its preliminary approval.

Next, an amendment to require a statewide referendum on the matter was rejected, 22-13.

Then the Senate registered its support for the original measure again, this time by 21-14.