PORTLAND (AP) – Same-sex couples are getting married in defiance of state laws in New York and California. But activists are discouraging gay and lesbian couples from pursuing the same strategy in Maine.

Lobbyists and advocates say forcing the marriage issue in Maine could distract from important legislation in Augusta.

The bill before the Legislature would allow domestic partners, as defined in state insurance law, to inherit property when a partner dies without a will. They also would be entitled to their partners’ remains.

“When we bring something like gay marriage to the forefront, I think it clouds the issue of the domestic partnership bill,” said Betsy Smith, executive director of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance.

At least one Mainer thought about pursuing a marriage license.

Stephen Spring of Portland ultimately decided against it.

“I spoke with some of the leaders in the gay rights movement in the state and we determined the timing wasn’t right for this, and we need to honor the timing of the work that’s going on and the bill they’re trying to push at the State House right now,” said Spring.

Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said he would not be surprised if same-sex couples seek marriage licenses from their local town halls in Maine.

“It seems like a fever is taking hold of our country right now,” Heath said. “I almost wouldn’t be surprised if some town clerk decides all on his own that he’s going to issue a marriage license.”

Heath’s organization opposes same-sex marriages, domestic partner benefits and civil unions. “It’s upholding the historic moral basis upon which our laws are built, and homosexual marriage strikes at that moral foundation,” he said.

Marriage between people of the same gender has been a high-profile issue since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that it violated that state’s constitution to deny marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

San Francisco began issuing marriage certificates for same-sex couples two weeks ago in spite of that state’s law prohibiting them. The issue appears headed for another court challenge.

The mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., invited gay couples to exchange vows Friday, but issued a certificate in lieu of a marriage license.

“There’s no doubt in my mind some people are very impatient with the process you need to go through to bring about change. That’s just indicative of how important an issue this is,” said Patricia Peard, a member of the Maine Council of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

Peard said a more likely course is for Mainers to travel to Massachusetts in May when same-sex couples will be able to marry in that state.

“What exactly will take place when they return to Maine and wish to have their relationship honored remains to be seen,” she said.

Maine, like many other states, has a law that explicitly says marriage is between a man and a woman and that the state will not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

AP-ES-02-29-04 1405EST

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