AUGUSTA – If Secretary of State Charlie Summers wanted clear direction from the public on the wording for the same-sex marriage question on Maine’s ballot Nov. 6, he didn’t get it.

An analysis of the more than 660 comments received by Summers’ office in the past month shows a range of opinions. Some say the question should stand as Summers has proposed it, while others want more information to appear on the ballot.

Last month, Summers proposed this wording for the ballot: “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

That began a public comment period that ended at 5 p.m. Monday.

The wording of the question is likely to be one factor that shapes the debate as both sides gear up for what’s expected to be a heated campaign.

The question of a religious exemption appears to be emerging as a point of contention on both sides of the issue.

Laurie Fogelman of Franklin wrote that Summers played “fast and loose with the truth” by neglecting to mention that the proposed law would not require members of the clergy to perform same-sex marriages if doing so went against their beliefs.

“I am so bitterly disappointed in your dismemberment of the referendum (wording) that over 60,000 Mainers asked for and supported” in a petition drive, she wrote. “Far from objectively representing the people of the state, you are forcing your own agenda in place of ours.”

Summers, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, has said he opposes same-sex marriage.

In support of Summers’ proposed wording, the Ancona family of Lisbon Falls and Durham wrote, “Finally, a referendum question that can be understood and you don’t need to be a Philly lawyer.”

The proposed wording of the ballot question has been controversial since Summers released it. Gay-marriage advocates said it fails to mention an important part of the proposed law, that the clergy would not have to perform same-sex marriages.

Those who oppose gay marriage said the question should let voters know that the law would redefine traditional marriage.

“It would have been even better and more accurate to say that Maine is being asked to redefine marriage,” wrote Gayle Finkbeiner of Belgrade. “Same-sex couples have never been considered ‘married’ by any society in history until recently.”

It appears that both sides rallied their supporters to write to Summers, because much of the language in the emails and hand-written notes is similar.

Then there was this suggestion from Bill Tower, who did not list a place of residence: “Do you support the continuance of ‘special’ rights for heterosexual couples?”

According to statistics from the Secretary of State’s Office, Summers received 662 public comments, which fall roughly into four categories:

n Keep the question as is (197).

n Change it so voters know it would redefine marriage (140).

n Change it to include wording about the religious exemption (293).

n Responses that were mostly opinions about same-sex marriage, not the wording of the question (32).

In a poll commissioned last month by the Portland Press Herald, using the question written by Summers, 57 percent of the respondents said they would vote “yes” to legalize same-sex marriage, 35 percent would vote “no “and 8 percent were undecided.

In 2009, Mainers overturned a gay-marriage law passed by the Legislature, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Summers has until July 30 to decide whether to keep his original wording or change it.

Megan Sanborn, Summers’ spokeswoman, said he will begin that process today and will meet with high-level deputies in the office this week. His decision can be appealed to Superior Court.

Advocates for same-sex marriage think the question will be confusing to voters if it doesn’t make clear that faith leaders cannot be required to perform gay marriages, said David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage.

“Our concern is, by only including part of the content of the initiative, the question is inaccurate and could confuse voters,” he said.

Bob Emrich, chairman of Protect Marriage Maine, which opposes gay marriage, has said it’s unnecessary to include the religious exemption in the question because the clergy is protected by the First Amendment from being required to perform marriages.

Emrich has said he would like to have the question specifically mention the redefinition of marriage. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Others who wrote to Summers said they want the question to remain short and simple.

“It’s either yes or no,” wrote Suzanne Legg of York. “I have felt that in the past the wording was so confusing that I wasn’t really sure if my vote actually counted the way I wanted it to.”

Some suggested alternatives.

Wendy Knickerbocker of Castine said she prefers the wording proposed by advocates in their ballot initiative: “Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples that protects religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?”

She did suggest a simpler version: “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry, provided that no clergy be required to perform such marriages?”

 

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

[email protected]ralmaine.com