SACO — Religious leaders who support same-sex marriage want to reverse their 2009 loss at the ballot box with convincing faith-based arguments.

The Religious Coalition Against Discrimination gathered Tuesday in Saco for a conference with pastors, rabbis and others from southern Maine. Coalition members say that most of the voters who swung the election against gay marriage three years ago are “conflicted persons of faith” who may know someone who is gay or lesbian but don’t think they should be allowed to marry.

“It’s important to have conversations with people of faith,” said the Rev. Marvin Ellison, the coalition’s president, “particularly those of us who support marriage equality because of our faith and values, not in spite of it.”

In November, voters will be asked again whether they want to make same-sex marriage legal in Maine.

For opponents who succeeded in repealing a law passed by the Legislature in 2009 to allow gay marriage, the fight for swing voters will be key, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

He agrees with Ellison that some of the undecided voters are conflicted people of faith. But he said they are torn because gay activists have made headway with arguments about fairness, not religion.

“Their tactic is making it a fairness issue, which creates that conflict,” Conley said.

He said Christians believe in justice and fairness, but he doesn’t believe the Bible can be interpreted in a way that supports gay marriage.

“People want to reinterpret the Bible in a way that is clearly not what it says,” he said. “People are picking and choosing, taking a social stand first and then going to the Bible.”

The Rev. Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor in Newport, is campaign chairman for a group of opponents that includes the Christian Civic League and the National Organization for Marriage. He disagrees with Ellison’s interpretation that the vote against gay marriage in 2009, by 53-47 percent, can be attributed to swing voters of faith.

“The whole thing is based on a false premise,” he said. “I don’t think there’s such a huge bloc of conflicted people of faith.”

The Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, a statewide network of clergy members who support civil rights, gathered in Bangor and Saco this week for day-long conferences on how to talk with Mainers who voted against same-sex marriage in 2009.

About 90 people attended the conferences. On Tuesday, they gathered at the First Parish Congregational Church in Saco.

The Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland said his interpretation of the Bible is consistent with his support of gay marriage.

“It’s important to see the Bible as something that can support all people,” he said. “The God I read about in the Bible is the God of justice.”

Three faith leaders spoke of how they have handled the issue, whether by giving sermons from the pulpit or by being more politically active.

The Rev. Christina Sillari of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland said that even within her congregation, some members don’t support gay marriage. But she told church members two weeks ago that she won’t sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until same-sex couples are given the same right.

Then she asked how to convince a larger group of people to support gay marriage. “How do we get to people who don’t even go to church?” she asked.

David Farmer, spokesman for the Dirigo Family PAC, which is working to pass the ballot question, said the religious coalition is one of 35 partners that are supporting the campaign.

Farmer, who was deputy chief of staff for Gov. John Baldacci when Baldacci signed gay marriage into law, said supporters believe that Maine voters are changing their minds, particularly since other states have approved gay marriage — including New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

They say the shift in Maine is reflected in polls that show 54 percent support for gay marriage.

Michael Heath, who is working with Paul Madore to form their own political organization to oppose the ballot question, said Ellison and others are “hoping to follow the crowd and the fad of the hour.”

“Even if a thousand false teachers appear on the scene, we will follow God’s law, a law which is eternal and imperishable, a law which is not made today and changed tomorrow, but which has existed from all time,” Heath said in a prepared statement.

When it comes to the outcome of this year’s vote, Emrich said he doesn’t believe the polls will prove to be accurate. Although gay-marriage supporters have spoken with many Mainers, he said, many people don’t want to talk about the issue with strangers, and politely send them away.

“I don’t think they are conflicted,” he said. “They just don’t want to argue about it.”

 

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com