This post was updated at 3:50 p.m. Monday to reflect additional comments from Kevin Kelley, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
The arguments for and against gay marriage now once again light up the national stage, as the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday to hear oral arguments on a pair of cases that could impact same-sex couples moving forward.
Maine is no stranger to the debate over same-sex marriage, having endured two statewide campaigns on the issue in recent years, one in 2009 and another in 2012. And as just like the statewide debate, there are parallel arguments that will factor into the court’s decision – the legal ones and the emotional ones.
But even as public opinion shifts rapidly in favor of legal gay marriage, it still has the potential to be a tricky issue for politicians – even in Maine, where people voted their approval by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin in 2012.
Three of the four members of Maine’s federal delegation signed onto a legal brief in support of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that prohibits same-sex spouses from receiving federal benefits, among other things.
“None of the arguments advanced in its defense is sufficient,” said the legal memo, signed by more than 200 sitting members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both Democrats.
“I support the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; all married couples should have access to all relevant federal benefits regardless of where they live,” said King in a statement.
Pingree, a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, said the campaigns in Maine show how quickly the ground is shifting on the issue and sees an air of “inevitability” on both the legal and public opinion front. When asked why some Democrats still have trouble embracing gay marriage, she said she had “no idea.”
“To me, I don’t know how in good conscience people could make any argument that it’s okay to be unfair to certain groups of people,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I think it’s an absurd opinion, I think it was absurd that Congress passed it in the first place, even though it was Bill Clinton.”
Michaud, who represents Maine’s most rural district and one that mostly voted against legalizing gay marriage in 2012. The possible gubernatorial candidate said he’ll be following the Supreme Court cases closely and pledged his support for gay marriage.
“I don’t believe people should be denied the right to marry,” he said in a statement. “However, I’ve been particularly sensitive to how same-sex marriage initiatives like the one recently passed in Maine would impact religious institutions.”
Michaud, a Catholic, said the Maine law contained sufficient protections for religious groups and he’s “hopeful the high court can do the same.”
As a conservative Democrat, the gay marriage issue is potentially a difficult issue for Michaud to navigate and one that has the potential to cut both ways for him. Favoring gay marriage in a district that mostly voted against it could leave him vulnerable in a re-election bid (though he comfortably won against a formidable opponent in 2012). But opposition to it would have caused him huge problems if he chose to run for governor, as he would be fighting for votes with Eliot Cutler, a left-of-center independent candidate widely expected to throw his hat in the ring.
And while U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Maine’s lone Republican representative in Congress, did not sign onto the brief, she has been supportive of gay rights on issues other than legal marriage. After procedural maneuvers left a repeal of the military policy ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ on the cutting room floor, Collins led the fight during a lame duck session to get a stand alone repeal passed. She’s worked with Democrats to draft a bill that would allow bi-national same-sex couples apply for legal residency in the United States and been supportive of extending federal benefits to domestic partners of federal employees.
DOMA was signed before Collins, who like Michaud is a Catholic, began serving in Congress, said Kevin Kelley, her spokesman. He also said Collins has twice voted against constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.
Collins, like Michaud, is striving to thread the needle on the specific issue of marriage. She’s up for re-election in 2014 and while the campaign should be a cakewalk for one of the most popular senator’s in the country, she’s not looking to give opponents any ammo against her.
“Sen. Collins believes this matter is best left up to the states, which have traditionally handled family law, and increasingly, the voters of states are choosing to legalize same-sex marriages as Maine did last fall,” Kelley said.