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Maine Gay Rights Supporters Launch New Referendum Campaign
01/26/2012   Reported By: Josie Huang

Gay rights activists today launched a referendum campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine this fall. The announcement comes more than two years after the Legislature approved gay nuptials, only to see the measure rejected in a referendum vote, 53 percent to 47 percent. If same-sex marriage passes at the polls, Maine could become the first state to approve gay marriage through a popular vote.

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Every sign had been pointing to this announcement. Supporters had collected nearly double the number of signatures needed to get a same-sex marriage question on the ballot. TV ads supporting gay marriage had begun to run in the Bangor market.

Now, this: dozens of smiling people packed into a room at the State House, all giving Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, their rapt attention.

"The number of signatures we gathered, the liveliness and thoughtfulness of the conversations we've had with Maine voters, and polling that shows a majority of support for marriage equality in Maine has shown us that Mainers are eager to speak on this issue again," Smith said.

Smith gestured to boxes stacked behind her, filled with, she said, more than 105,000 signatures to be presented to the Secretary of State's office. Fifty-seven thousand signatures need to be certified to get their question on the November ballot.

"The question will ask Maine voters to support marriage for their gay and lesbian neighbors," Smith said. "The law to be voted on is called an Act to Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom."

The law states that no clergy member would have to perform same-sex marriage in violation of their religious beliefs. But that offered no comfort to religious leaders, who pledged to fight the campaign. They shrugged off a survey by same-sex marriage supporters finding that 54 percent of likely Maine voters favor the measure.

"And certainly we're going to be out there promoting marriage as the union of a man and a woman like we did in 2009," says Brian Souchet, a spokesman on the issue for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. "And, by the way, what people say in casual conversations or in a poll is not what they do when they're in the privacy of the voting booth."

Souchet, who acted as a consultant on the 2009 Stand for Marriage Maine campaign, and has since become a spokesman for the Catholic Church. "I'm the director of the Office for the Promotion of the Defense of Marriage for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. How's that for a mouthful?"

The diocese took a lead role in fighting same-sex marriage in the 2009 referendum battle. The church's spokesman on same-sex marriage then was Marc Mutty, who has expressed conflicted feelings about the diocese's position. Souchet says Mutty is still directing public affairs for the diocese.

"But this kind of issue is such a big issue and has taken on such a life of its own that we're going to address it as a stand-alone entity," Souchet says.

Souchet says that alliances made in 2009 with the evangelical community could take shape again. 

But the gay marriage coalition of supporters say they're ready for them. The group includes pastors, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and the Maine Women's Lobby. Ben Dudley is with the progressive group Engage Maine.

"These are very difficult, particularly, economic times in Maine," Dudley says. "And it gives me hope and helps me get going in the day knowing that this year I get to work on a project that is about love and committment and family. I think that's going to be motivating a lot of people in Maine to get involved in this issue."

Same-sex marriage is allowed in six other states and the District of Columbia, made legal through either legislative or court action. Maine is one of only two states in New England not to allow same-sex marriage, the other being Rhode Island.

Republican Senate President Kevin Raye says he doesn't think Mainers have changed their minds about same-sex marriage since 2009. He hasn't. "I have supported every other gay rights issue that come before us," Raye says. "But I believe that marriage is something very significant, and frankly I'm somewhat disappointed that we're not looking at a middle ground approach such as civil unions."

Gay marriage supporters say in the coming months, they plan to raise $4 million to $6 million to wage their campaign, start airing ads and continue doing outreach. They're hopeful that a presidential election year will draw voters to the polls for their cause.


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