AUGUSTA (AP) – As he signed a bill Wednesday creating domestic partnerships in Maine, Gov. John Baldacci said the state is demonstrating its commitment to civil rights by enacting a priority for gay rights activists.

The new law, which takes effect 90 days after the signing, extends domestic partnership rights to heterosexual or gay adults who live together under long-term arrangements. It also gives domestic partners the same inheritance rights as a spouse when a married partner dies without a will.

“From the beginning, this has been about fairness and justice for what are today’s families here in Maine, and giving them the same protections that certain married couples have already,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ben Dudley, D-Portland.

The measure was a priority of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, said the group’s Betsy Smith, who attended a bill-signing ceremony.

Some of Maine’s families are gay and lesbian couples, and currently they don’t have the same kinds of rights as those other families have, said Smith.

“This legislation is about people who die without a will,” she added.

The new law will allow domestic partners to register with the state as such. Registered couples’ partnerships could not be terminated without the consent of both parties.

Domestic partners would also have priority for appointment as personal representatives, guardians or conservators for an estate or custodian of the remains of a deceased partner.

Congratulating the bill’s advocates and sponsors, Baldacci said the bill shows “our state is a state that recognizes the importance of individual rights and civil rights for all citizens.”

The gay-lesbian alliance lined up behind the bill after withdrawing a bill early this session that would extend civil rights to homosexuals under the Maine Human Rights Act.

“For that (the gay rights bill,) the time wasn’t right,” said Smith.

The Christian Civic League of Maine has been wary of the legislation all along, particularly of creating a domestic partnership registry.

“I think it’s appalling that we’re doing this,” the evangelical group’s Executive Director Michael Heath said after the bill’s signing.

Heath said the bill will work to “destroy the family,” which should consist of a mother and father who are committed for a lifetime. “That’s what we all long for and that’s the way God intended it and it’s the way our laws used to be structured,” he said.

On one point, the sponsors and Heath were in near agreement.

Heath said a will can accomplish much of what the new law does.

“By far, the better thing for people to do is get a will,” Dudley said.

Supporters of the bill have brushed aside opponents’ concerns it would open the door to same-sex marriages, which have been illegal under a Maine statute since 1997.

Earlier this year, lawmakers defeated proposals that would have directed the Judiciary Committee to develop a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman.

AP-ES-04-28-04 1754EDT

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