AUGUSTA – Maine’s same-sex marriage debate will return to the state Capitol today, but voters’ attitudes — and elections in November — will determine the issue’s future, supporters and opponents said Tuesday.

Both sides will be in Augusta today, starting with an EqualityMaine news conference about the importance of allowing same-sex marriage. At noon, opponents of same-sex marriage will rally in Capitol Park.

The National Organization for Marriage is kicking off a multistate Summer for Marriage Tour in Augusta. The 20-stop trip will end a month later in Washington, D.C.

Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor from Plymouth, is helping to organize the Maine leg of the tour.

“Honestly, I think the momentum for our side is building, it’s getting stronger,” said Emrich, who helped coordinate the repeal of Maine’s gay-marriage law last year. “We want to keep people aware of it, maintain contacts and keep coalitions together.”

In November, 53 percent of Maine voters rejected the same-sex marriage law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci.

Immediately after the vote, gay rights activists said they would continue to work on the issue and vowed to bring it back before the Legislature.

On Tuesday, same-sex marriage supporters said they don’t have a time line for introducing new legislation.

“The truth is, there’s a lot of work we have to do,” said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine. “We need more Mainers to support marriage before we make the decision to go forward proactively.”

Another complication for same-sex marriage supporters is this November’s elections: All 186 legislative seats and the governor’s seat are on the ballot.

Last year, when the bill was signed into law, the House, the Senate and the governor’s office were controlled by Democrats. This year, the Senate is expected to be hotly contested. The governor’s race is a tossup, with two major candidates supporting same-sex marriage and one opposed.

Senate President Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, voted for the same-sex marriage bill. Independent Eliot Cutler said he supports marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, a Republican, opposes it.

Independent Shawn Moody of Gorham said he would want the issue to go back to voters. Kevin Scott of Andover released a statement in which he indicated support for equal legal protections for gay and lesbian couples.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the coalition that is working to build support for same-sex marriage has heard from people who didn’t fully understand the issue. She said she believes the public is beginning to see prohibiting gay marriage as discrimination.

Emrich, who lost a bid to represent House District 25 in a Republican primary in June, says opponents of same-sex marriage are gaining strength.

When the bill passed last year, he said, he was caught flat-footed, and groups opposing same-sex marriage weren’t as organized as they are now.

“The outcome would be the same or a wider margin if we were to vote on it again,” he said. “A lot of people instinctively just don’t think you should try to redefine marriage.”

Smith, of EqualityMaine, said her side has identified swing voters who say they support fairness and equality but stop short of favoring same-sex marriage.

The group’s strategy is to explain to those swing voters why marriage is important.

“It’s organizing and it takes a while,” she said.

Maggie Gallagher, chair of the National Organization for Marriage, said the group planned its tour for various sites across the country for various reasons. In Maine, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey, it wants to encourage activists to block gay-marriage legislation, she said.

“The reason we’re in Maine is, we understand the people who disagree with the majority of people in Maine are talking about pushing a gay-marriage agenda in the next Legislature,” she said.

The organization donated nearly $2 million to Stand for Marriage Maine, which ran the campaign to overturn the state’s gay-marriage law.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]