March 4, 2010

Maine's repeal effort gets a new public face

SUSAN M

— By . COVER

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Staff photo by Andy Molloy KEEPING THE FAITH: Pastor Bob Emrich speaks following services at Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth. Emrich is leading the effort to repeal the same sex marriage law in Maine.

Kennebec Journal

PLYMOUTH — On a beautiful Sunday, in a small white church in rural Maine, the Rev. Bob Emrich began his sermon by recalling a question he'd been asked by a television reporter.

''Is this a religious issue?'' Emrich was asked.

Emrich, a major player in the effort to overturn the state's gay-marriage law, said at that moment, he didn't have a good answer to the question.

But on this Sunday, he used the question as a way to share his belief that religion shouldn't be confined by the walls of a church.

''It's sort of sad the question even needs to be asked,'' he said to the 70 or so gathered. ''Every part of life is defined by your relationship to God.''

For Emrich, a 58-year-old native of Oregon, a life devoted to Christianity -- and a deep interest in history and politics -- led him to join with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to fight gay marriage.

''I think it's very important,'' he said. ''It's always important when you take an institution like marriage that has been a part of society for so long and to make such a fundamental change to it. It has to be important. It has such a wide impact.''

Emrich emerged as the public face of gay-marriage opposition after disagreements on strategy with Michael Heath.

Heath, who stepped down last month as executive director of the Maine Family Policy Council, had for years fought attempts by activists to add gays and lesbians to the list of classes protected from discrimination.

Emrich said disagreements about how to wage the marriage campaign -- particularly the tone -- led to a split with Heath, who recently launched a private consulting firm.

''It's difficult,'' Emrich said. ''Mike has been leading the social conservative movement for 15-20 years. For someone else to come along and say 'let's try something different' is hard to do.''

Yet it may prove to be a critical decision that affects the outcome of the election.

Changing the public face of the opposition was a smart move and has led to a more civil debate this time around, said Dennis Bailey, a political strategist who is not being paid by either campaign.

''The danger was always that Mike would say something to electrify the opposition to stir them up,'' Bailey said. ''I think there was a lot of fear it would get personal and nasty, and I don't think it has.''

And while the public face may be different, the goal is the same: Overturn the new state law that allows same-sex couples to get married in Maine.

BECOMING A CHRISTIAN IN COLLEGE

After high school in northwest Oregon, Emrich graduated from Clatsop Community College and worked in forestry for a time.

''While I was going to college, that's when I first became a Christian,'' he said. ''I had no idea what that meant. I never went to church growing up at all.''

A self-described ''farm kid,'' Emrich said he decided to move east to attend the New Brunswick Bible Institute because they offered to let him pay part of the cost by working on a farm.

After that, he signed up to go on a mission to Bangladesh in 1978, but political tensions meant their visas were denied.

Emrich wasn't sure what he wanted to do next, but a pastor from Machias asked him to work on a youth program. He spent five years in Machias, until he took over as pastor at a church in Monticello in Aroostook County.

From there he moved to Sangerville and attended the University of Maine to get a degree in education and history. He used his degree to get a teaching job in Guilford, where he taught social studies for about nine years.

In Sangerville, Emrich met his future wife.

''She made a cup of coffee,'' he said. ''It was the worst coffee I ever drank in my whole life. It was so nice of her to make the coffee for us, I was polite and tried to drink it anyway.''

They married in 1991 at a church in Veazie.

While teaching in Guilford, he filled in one Sunday in 1993 at his current church at a time when church attendance had fallen to six or eight people. He's held various other jobs while serving as pastor, a position that has now grown to full-time.

WORKING AT THE STATE HOUSE

While in Sangerville, Emrich met Paul Davis, a retired state trooper who first ran for the state Senate in 1999.

''He said he'd run for the Senate if I'd be his campaign manager,'' Emrich said. ''He'd never been in the Senate, and I'd never run a campaign before, but we had a good time.''

Davis, a Republican, went on to become Senate minority leader and hired Emrich as a staffer.

''I've never known a more gentle, kinder man than Bob Emrich,'' said Davis, who is now a state representative. ''He's honest to a fault.''

While working at the State House, Emrich said, he noticed a lack of representation for the views of Christians. Also, he said, it's not possible for one group to represent all views and wanted to find a way to encourage political involvement by individual churches.

He approached others, including Heath, to ask them to form an organization that would teach churches how to express themselves on issues without running afoul of federal tax laws.

''No one would do it,'' he said. ''I was complaining about it one day and my wife said 'you can either keep complaining about it or just do it yourself.'''

He took her advice.

LAUNCHING JEREMIAH PROJECT

In 2007, Emrich received the Family Research Council Watchman of the Year Award, which honors pastors who have become leaders on important issues.

A few years before, Emrich attended a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the council at a point in his career when he felt burned out.

He came home inspired and launched the Maine Jeremiah Project, a grass-roots coalition of social conservatives, often calling on the council for assistance.

''When they saw we had built a network of pastors across denominational lines all over the state and that was beginning to have some impact, they gave me that award,'' he said.

Two years later, he went on to become the visible opposition to same-sex marriage. As with the Jeremiah Project, Emrich said, he didn't want to take a leadership role.

But as the issue picked up steam at the State House, Emrich and Marc Mutty -- who is on leave from his position with the diocese -- emerged as leaders of the opposition.

Emrich said he has tried to keep the emphasis on marriage, rather than on ''homosexual behavior.''

''At some point, it's a personal, private matter,'' he said. ''There's an obligation on all of us to try to warn and encourage each other away from destructive behaviors and toward healthy behaviors, but we're always going to debate what those are. When it comes to public policy, that's not what this bill is regulating. It's about something more than that.''

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