Tuesday, December 10, 2013
AUGUSTA — Advocates of gay marriage submitted more than 105,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's Office on Thursday to begin what's expected to be a long and passionate debate over the right to marry in Maine.
Ali Vanderzanden, political director for EqualityMaine, hugs a friend Thursday at the State House in Augusta. The boxes contain more than 105,000 signatures collected by supporters of gay marriage who are hoping to force a second referendum on the issue.
Photos by Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press
Whitney Gifford of Bucksport leads a group of gay-marriage supporters carrying signed petitions Thursday to the Secretary of State’s Office in Augusta.
Dozens of advocates packed the small State House Welcome Center to announce their intention to get a question on the statewide ballot in November. In 2009, Maine voters overturned a law passed by the Legislature to allow same-sex marriage.
"This denial of marriage continues to be a very painful part of our lives," said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine. "The need for marriage has not gone away since 2009."
Smith said the decision to seek another referendum this year was driven by several factors, including polling done for the advocates in December that showed 54 percent of 800 likely voters favored allowing same-sex marriage.
She also cited this year's presidential election, which will boost voter turnout; advocates' meetings with voters to gain support; an organized coalition that includes EqualityMaine, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Women's Lobby; and the belief that proponents of gay marriage will have the money it takes to win at the polls.
Opponents said they are disappointed that voters will have to address the issue again but they, too, are ready.
"After the bitterly divisive campaign of 2009, in which Maine people clearly and decisively voted against changing the meaning of marriage, we're dismayed that they would bring this issue back for yet another vote," said Brian Souchet of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, in a prepared statement. "Marriage is an institution that cannot be arbitrarily redefined to accommodate adult desires for public affirmation or state-sponsored benefits."
Gay-marriage supporters turned in more than 75 boxes of petition signatures to the Secretary of State's Office, which now has 30 days to confirm that there are at least 57,277 valid signatures of registered voters - 10 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election.
The verification process is seen as just a formality at the State House, where the Legislature's response to the initiative is already being discussed.
Lawmakers could adopt the gay-marriage proposal or send it to referendum. The advocates made it clear that they are aiming for a vote by Maine citizens.
Three years ago, they focused much of their effort on winning legislative support. This year, with Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican governor who has said he opposes gay marriage, they hope to go directly to voters.
David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, Senate chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said there have been preliminary discussions about whether the Legislature should hold a public hearing or just let the bill go to the ballot.
He said legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers will have to decide whether it makes sense to spend time on a hearing when, ultimately, the issue will go to the voters.
"If there's going to be a public hearing, it will be another (Augusta) Civic Center spectacle that will bring out thousands," Hastings said. "It's inevitable it will end up on the ballot."
At Thursday's press conference, gay-marriage supporters laid out the reasons for Maine to join the six states that allow same-sex couples to marry - including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont.
Lucie Bauer of Rockport said she and her partner felt so strongly about their relationship that they went to California in 2008 to get married.
"We regretted that we had to travel so far from our children, our family and our closest friends in order to legally marry," she said. "The two of us hope one day our marriage certificate will be honored here in our beloved home state of Maine."
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Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, speaks at the State House news conference Thursday. “This denial of marriage continues to be a very painful part of our lives. The need for marriage has not gone away since 2009,” she said.