In a mild surprise, a measure that would have legalized gay marriage in Maine has lost by about five and a half points.  The measure had the backing of most of Maine’s political class, a clear fundraising lead, and a network of national activists hoping to provide a counterpoint to California’s Proposition 8 defeat.  Instead, voters in Maine essentially ratified California’s result:

The stars seemed aligned for supporters of gay marriage. They had Maine’s governor, legislative leaders and major newspapers on their side, plus a huge edge in campaign funding. So losing a landmark referendum was a devastating blow, for activists in Maine and nationwide.

In an election that had been billed for weeks as too close to call, Maine’s often unpredictable voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed. Gay marriage has now lost in all 31 states in which it has been put to a popular vote — a trend that the gay-rights movement had believed it could end in Maine.

“Today’s heartbreaking defeat unfortunately shows that lies and fear can still win at the ballot box,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 percent of the vote. They prevailed in many of Maine’s far-flung small towns and lost by a less-than-expected margin in the state’s biggest city, Portland.

“The institution of marriage has been preserved in Maine and across the nation,” declared Frank Schubert, chief organizer for the winning side.

The recognition of marriage is a legitimate public policy question, one that should be decided through either the legislature or by direct vote in referendums.  No one has proposed any law to ban gay relationships, and the law should not interfere with consenting, non-sanguinary adults in creating legal partnerships for property, access, and so on — the incidentals of long-term relationships.  But the people of the states have the right to determine what relationships qualify for state recognition as marriage.

Californians did so with Proposition 8, and have been attacked ever since for their decision.  One wonders if the advocates for this measure will alienate Maine voters post-election in the same manner they have done with Californians.  Having lost that election by a wide margin, they proceeded to insult Californians and sue the state for all sorts of intrusive searches of records on the referendum.  It hardly builds sympathy for a later try on the measure, and made the entire idea look more radical than it was — which certainly couldn’t have helped in Maine.

As far as protecting the “institution of marriage,” though, the states gave up on that decades ago with no-fault divorce.  Marriage is the only contract that one partner can abrogate without penalty.  People would be better protected by partnership contracts, where property and child access would be decided and agreed long before problems appeared in the relationship, and leave marriage to the churches, which are much better suited to protect the institution.  Divorce is a much bigger danger to marriage than gay marriage ever will be, and the dissolution of the nuclear family a much bigger threat to the fabric of society than gays and lesbians living together.  Everyone would be better off with government out of the bedroom and the chapel — and so would marriage.