Three New England states down, three to go. Maine this week will begin the process of debating whether it wants to be the fourth New England state to legalize gay marriage.

At a media event in February, Democratic Senator Dennis S. Damon – flanked by gay and lesbian couples who would like to marry – announced he would introduce a gay marriage bill.

Large crowds are expected to fill the Augusta Civic Center tomorrow as a Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to hear debate on the bill. Lawmakers changed the event's initial location from Cony High School to accommodate the expected crowd.

Maine lawmakers approved a limited domestic partnership registry for gay and lesbian couples in 2004, putting the state in the category of states that offer some legal protections to gay and lesbian couples. But the state's registry includes few guaranteed protections beyond estate planning.

Lawmakers are also being asked to consider expanding the state's domestic partner registry to offer all the rights and responsibilities of marriage without the name. Representative Leslie Fossel, a state representative from Alna, says he sponsored the bill to spare Maine a divisive debate on gay marriage.

Gay marriage is legal in three of the six New England states and bills to legalize the institution have been introduced this year in the remaining states of New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. Earlier this month, Vermont became the first state to legalize gay marriage legislatively, instead of by court order.

Gay activists are hoping momentum on the issue will help carry the day. In April alone, Iowa and Vermont legalized gay marriage, Washington D.C. leaders agreed to recognize legal gay marriages performed elsewhere, Washington state approved expanding a domestic partnership registry for gay and lesbian couples (the new law now closely resembles marriage), and New York Governor David Paterson is set to re-introduced a gay marriage bill in the Empire State.

Gay marriage opponents have mounted an expensive television ad blitz that has run in several states, including New Hampshire and Maine. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) says they spent $1.5 million producing their Gathering Storm ad.

The bill does appear to enjoy the support of several key legislative leaders, including Speaker Hannah Pingree and Majority Whip Seth Berry in the House and President Elizabeth Michell, along with Majority Leader Philip Bartlett, in the Senate. All four lawmakers are Democrats and have signed on as co-sponsors to the gay marriage bill, according to Equality Maine, a group that lobbies for gay marriage in Maine.