AUGUSTA — A simple 10-word question that could appear on Maine’s ballot in November isn’t making either side of the gay-marriage campaign happy.

Both sides say they wish the ballot question took a slightly different tack, though for different reasons.

The question, proposed Thursday by Secretary of State Charlie Summers, says, “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

That’s significantly shorter than the question proposed by activists who gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

In addition to asking voters if they would allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses, their question referred to “ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.”

Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage, which supports gay marriage, said in a prepared statement that Summers’ question addresses only one of two important elements of the proposed law.

“The question does not address the parts of the proposed law that protect religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs,” he said. “More than 105,000 Maine voters signed petitions that included information about both parts of the law. Ideally, the language of the question would reflect that full explanation.”

Bob Emrich, campaign manager for Protect Marriage Maine, which opposes gay marriage, said he would have liked the question to ask voters whether they want to change the definition of marriage.

But, overall, he’s glad it’s a simple statement that won’t confuse voters.

“We won’t complain if it’s left the way it is now,” he said. “At least this is a simple yes or no.”

Emrich said it’s unnecessary to include the religious exemption in the question because that’s covered by the First Amendment. Government can’t require religious entities to perform marriages, and that won’t change even if gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry.

“It’s misleading and redundant,” he said of the religious-exemption language. “I will do everything I can to voice an objection to putting that back into it.”

By late Thursday afternoon, the Christian Civic League of Maine, which is working with Emrich to defeat the ballot measure, sent an email urging opponents of gay marriage to send Summers a letter expressing support for the question as written.

On Tuesday, Summers was elected the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Olympia Snowe.

Both sides in the gay-marriage campaign — and the rest of the public — have 30 days to tell Summers what they think of the question. Once the public comment period ends, July 16, Summers will release final wording, said Megan Sanborn, spokeswoman for Summers. After that, there’s a 10-day appeal period.

Maine’s process for deciding the wording of ballot questions was established in 2007.

In 2010, the wording of a casino question was changed in response to complaints from Dennis Bailey of the group CasinosNO!

Bailey said the original question indicated that the casino would be in Biddeford, when the wording of the law allowed it to be built anywhere within 25 miles of Scarborough Downs. Summers agreed to change the question.

Bailey said he thinks it’s important for groups to fight for the right wording of ballot questions. Bailey is not working on either side of the gay-marriage campaign.

“I think (voters) go in and look, and if they see something they didn’t realize, it does have an impact,” he said Thursday.

Sanborn said the Secretary of State’s Office is open to making changes if there’s a compelling reason.

“Usually, if we get enough comments to add something or change something, our office will do that, if voters will benefit from that,” she said.

Sanborn said a group of people considered several versions of the gay-marriage question. The group included Summers, Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, Chief Deputy Barbara Redmond and Phyllis Gardiner, an assistant attorney general. Sanborn said the wording was based on the question submitted by advocates of gay marriage.

Three other states are expected to consider gay-marriage questions this year, but Maine is the only state where voters will be asked if they support gay marriage.

Maryland and Washington state voters will be asked if they want to repeal state laws that allow gay marriage. Minnesota voters will consider a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

The most recent vote on the issue came in May, when voters in North Carolina supported a constitutional ban with 61 percent of the vote. The voters were asked if they were for or against a “Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

MaryEllen FitzGerald, who runs the Critical Insights polling firm in Portland, said the proposed wording from Summers is incomplete because it doesn’t mention the religious exemption. FitzGerald has not been paid by either side for this campaign, she said.

“It sounds to me like it’s more of a philosophical question than a legislative approach,” she said.

To average voters, the exact wording of the question isn’t likely to be a deciding factor, said Marvin Druker, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus.

“I’m not sure everybody reads it when they go to vote,” he said. “They know if they are going to favor it or oppose it. I’m not sure the wording itself will make that much difference.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:

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