Augusta, Maine (AP) - A legislative hearing to extend gay marriage to another New England state - Maine - created traffic jams Wednesday as thousands of residents converged on a civic arena to air their views.
Gay marriage supporters hoping to build on momentum in the region arrived wearing red, and they gave a standing ovation to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon, as he opened the hearing.
"This bill is fair. This bill's time has come," Damon, D-Trenton, said to a roar of approval. "It recognizes the worth of every man and woman among us."
Damon's proposal - backed by 60 legislative co-sponsors - would repeal a state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman and replace it with one that authorizes marriage between any two people.
Also up for a discussion is a separate bill to allow civil unions - which offer many of the same rights as marriage - sponsored by Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna.
Wednesday's hearing started a half-hour late because of the size of the crowd, made up of people both for and against gay marriage. The Augusta Civic Center's auditorium has seating for 4,000, and it was nearly full.
Gay rights activists want to get laws allowing same-sex marriage passed in all of New England by 2012, and they're already halfway there. Vermont's Legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto two weeks ago to enact a same-sex marriage law. Connecticut and Massachusetts also allow gay marriage.
New Hampshire's Senate is expected to take up a House-approved bill later this month. In Rhode Island, a bill is awaiting a vote but is not expected to pass.
Outside of New England, only Iowa allows gay marriage, though a handful of states allow similar arrangements.
The marriage effort's prospects in Maine are uncertain. The Legislature could approve it or reject it, or the state's voters could have the final say. Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who previously opposed the idea, now says he is keeping an open mind.
Marc Mutty from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which opposes the bill, said he believes the issue will be decided by statewide referendum. The Legislature has the option of sending the issue to voters. Or, if the measure becomes law, opponents could initiate a "people's veto."
The earliest a Judiciary Committee vote is expected would be April 28. If the bill passes there, it would go to the Senate, then the House before hitting the governor's desk.
The gay-marriage bill led to television ads encouraging people to attend the committee's public hearing on Wednesday. About 800 people already had arrived an hour before the hearing began, and there were 3,000 people by late morning, said Dana Colwill, building director.
The legislative committee set up strict rules, limiting hooting and hollering and banning signs and placards in the building. Testimony was limited to three minutes.
Among those testifying was Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone, who said the church has long supported domestic partner laws. But he said the church opposes same-sex marriage, which he characterized as one of several challenges facing traditional marriage.
"We speak in opposition to same-sex marriage because we are deeply concerned about the institution of marriage itself - in this state, and in this nation," he said.
But leaders of other churches favored the bill. Those include 120 clergy members active in the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality.
"Jesus led a life of doing justice. We are called to do the same," said the Rev. Deborah Davis Johnson of Immanuel Baptist Church of Portland.
She said Jesus taught people to treat each other as equals "even if we don't understand the other."
A legislative hearing to extend gay marriage to another New England state - Maine - created traffic jams Wednesday as thousands of residents converged on a civic arena to air their views.