While polls characterize today's vote on whether to prohibit same-sex marriage in Maine as too close to call, recent experience in California and elsewhere should dampen expectations. Same-sex marriage laws have yet to be passed by voters in any state; either the courts or the legislature took the necessary actions in the five states where same-sex marriage has been approved.
But no matter the outcome in the Pine Tree State, it would be a mistake to believe this country's movement toward equal rights for gays and lesbians is losing momentum. There are too many indications that the reverse is taking place - that a growing number of communities are open to change - to lose faith now.
Closest to home, the District of Columbia may be on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage. D.C. has already chosen to recognize the rights of same-sex couples married in the handful of states where that's possible. That Congress chose not to tamper with that choice is noteworthy, too.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is expected to soon issue an opinion on whether Gov. Martin O'Malley has the authority to require out-of-state same-sex marriages to be recognized in this state as well, despite a Maryland law banning such marriages from being performed here. Mr. Gansler has already endorsed overturning that ban.
In Montgomery County, the County Council is pondering a measure to require all county contractors to offer the same benefits to gay employees that they do to straight ones. That would, for instance, require any contracting firm that offers health benefits to spouses to do the same for same-sex partners.
The law would represent a first by a local government in Maryland, but the policy is overdue, not only because it ensures more Marylanders are covered by health insurance but also because spending tax dollars to the benefit of companies that discriminate against same-sex employees is wrong.
Opponents may believe that these developments are only evidence that some progressive politicians and judges are out of touch with the electorate. But civil rights movements seldom succeed through the ballot box. That's the nature of social change; it requires people to be leaders for a cause that is just.
Certainly, it's easy enough to stoke public fear over so controversial a matter as marriage. In California, those who favored the Proposition 8 ban warned that allowing same-sex couples to marry would somehow lead to the destruction of heterosexual marriage and represented an assault on religious beliefs.
The reality is that same-sex marriage would merely make certain that adults of the same gender in loving, committed relationships could enter into the same civil contract - and be afforded the same protections under the law - as opposite-gender couples. Health care, inheritance, the use of sick leave to care for a partner, the conveyance of property - those are the fundamental human rights at stake in the debate.
No civil rights movement is immune from setbacks. A repeal in Maine - or a defeat for the "everything but marriage" civil union law in Washington state that's also before voters today - would be disappointing but would likely represent only a brief (and maybe even negligible) pause in the relentless march toward equality.
The pace may be picking up, but every day that discrimination is allowed to remain in any part of the civil code is another day that the Constitution remains suspended for millions of Americans. One day, one hour, one minute more is too much time to be denied equality.
Obviously when you force an issue down people's throats it will be swallowed, but only reluctantly. Unelected judges did this unconstitutionally and therefore gave cover to the idea in a few liberal states. Nationwide it has been rejected because it is bad public policy.