A candlelight protest vigil lit the way for people attending a rally against gay marriage in Maine, reports the Morning Sentinel.

An estimated 1,000 people gathered Sunday for the Stand for Marriage Rally at the Augusta Civic Center to show their opposition to a gay marriage bill being debated in the Maine Legislature. About 60 protesters lined the walkway leading into the building holding candles.

At a press conference last month, Democratic Senator Dennis S. Damon announced that he would introduce the gay marriage bill surrounded by members of several prominent gay groups – including Equality Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and the Maine Women's Lobby – and gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry.

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.

Tony Perkins, president of the Washington D.C.-based Christian Family Research Council, was the headline speaker at the event.

“We care about families and children in Maine, and the protesters,” Perkins told the audience. “Those folks trying to redefine marriage are not our enemies.” Perkins said the gay marriage debate is a nationwide battle.

Michael Heath of the Maine Family Policy Council, which is backed by James Dobson's Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, took a harsher view of proponents of the gay marriage bill.

He said gay marriage was more about imposing immorality on the institution of marriage, and that gay rights advocates were seeking special rights.

“There is an element of selfishness in the gay rights movement in that homosexuals already have the right to form domestic partnerships,” Heath said. “It is selfish for a vocal minority to impose its special version of immorality on the definition of marriage.”

“We are for equal rights, not special rights,” he later added.

Last week, gay marriage supporters passed out Valentine's Day cards to lawmakers and urged them to back Damon's bill.

Gay activists have mounted a six state strategy to win gay marriage for the entire New England region by 2012. Legislation to provide for gay marriage is being introduced this year in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island. Gay and lesbian couples can currently marry in Massachusetts and Connecticut.