A fight over the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry is taking shape in Maine. Proponents of gay marriage announced they would introduce a bill in the Maine Legislature to allow the practice, while opponents announced their own anti-gay measure, setting the stage for a rancorous debate over the definition of marriage.

At a Tuesday press conference, Senator Dennis S. Damon (Democrat) announced that he will introduce a gay marriage bill.

Several prominent gay and lesbian groups were present at the media event including members of the Maine Freedom to Marry Coalition made up of the Equality Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and the Maine Women's Lobby.

Gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry surrounded Damon as he made the announcement.

Maine lawmakers passed a bill in 2004 to extend domestic partnerships to both gay and straight couples, putting the state in the category of states that offer some legal protections to gay and lesbian couples.

The state's registry grants few guaranteed protections beyond estate planning, but gives gay couples a legal footing when asking for benefits from the private sector.

A 2005 report by the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law concluded gay couples lived in every county in Maine and represent about .7% of all households in the state.

Damon, who lives in Trenton with his wife Bonnie, said the new bill would extend the responsibilities and benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples and would affirm a religious institution's right to decide who to marry. The law would also recognize legal gay marriages performed in other states.

“Today I have submitted an act to end discrimination in civil marriage and to affirm religious freedom,” he said at the Augusta, Maine press conference.

Mary Bonauto, the Civil Rights Project Director of GLAD, the gay rights organization largely responsible for winning the right of gay couples to marry in Massachusetts and Connecticut, spoke at the press conference: “Loving, committed same sex couples in my home state deserve all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Every day I meet couples who are raising children or planning retirement without the legal protections of marriage. It's time to right this wrong and make Maine a better, fairer, stronger state.”

GLAD leaders are pushing a six state strategy to win gay marriage for the entire New England region. Of those states, Massachusetts began offering gay marriage in 2005 and Connecticut last November. Two states offer civil unions: Vermont and New Hampshire. Legislation to provide for gay marriage is being introduced this year in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.

But the fight in Maine promises to face tough opposition.

Rep. Josh Tardy, the House Republican leader in Maine, has announced he will introduce legislation this session that would restrict marriage to a heterosexual union by making it a constitutional amendment.

In New Hampshire, openly gay Democrat Jim Splaine, the sponsor of the New Hampshire civil unions bill that passed in 2007, is also facing difficult opposition to his gay marriage bill.

Soon after Splaine announced he would sponsor the bill altering civil unions to marriage, gay marriage foes announced their owns plans to limit the influence of legal gay marriages performed in states such as nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut.

GLAD hopes to bring gay marriage to the entire New England region by 2012.