By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau
AUGUSTA - A new pro-gay-marriage television advertisement was to begin airing Sunday in key markets around the United States as the country's largest gay and lesbian rights organization looks to build on momentum gained in Maine and two other states where voters approved same-sex marriage this month.
The Human Rights Campaign hired Portland-based company Chi/Donahoe+Cole/Duffey to produce the 30-second spot, which features the voice of actor Morgan Freeman and depicts images of past civil rights battles such as women's suffrage and racial equality.
"It's really to capture the momentum of the incredible victories we had at the ballot box a few weeks ago," said Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz. "As Morgan Freeman says, there's still a journey ahead of us."
The advertisement -- which will air in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles -- is designed to influence decision makers, not voters, he said. While the group wants to build on success in Maine, Maryland and Washington, all of which approved gay-marriage ballot questions Nov. 6, it also casts an eye to the future, with the U.S. Supreme Court set to begin consideration of a challenge to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and other gay-marriage-related lawsuits Nov. 30.
Also, state legislative battles are expected early next year in Rhode Island, Delaware, Illinois, Hawaii and Minnesota, where voters rejected a state-level constitutional ban on gay marriage this month.
While the Human Rights Campaign is touting recent success, it's clear the movement has a long way to go. Even with this month's votes, only nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. State constitutional bans are in place in 31 states, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents all gay couples -- even those living in states that allow same-sex marriage -- from receiving any federal benefits granted to opposite-sex married couples.
Opponents say they plan to renew efforts to fight the expansion of gay marriage and that they will keep an eye on how things play out in Maine after gay couples begin marrying, which is likely to be sometime in January.
The day after the Nov. 6 election, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, sent out a statement calling the results a "setback" but not a true reflection of where voters stand on the issue.
"Our opponents and some in the media will attempt to portray the election results as a changing point in how Americans view gay marriage, but that is not the case," he said. "Americans remain strongly in favor of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The election results reflect the political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states."
Nationwide, supporters of gay marriage raised $33 million while opponents raised $11 million, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Mainers United for Marriage, the primary group supporting same-sex marriage in Maine, raised $4.3 million and Protect Marriage Maine, the lead opponent, raised $1.4 million, according to campaign finance reports filed in late October.
Brown, who did not return calls last week, also indicated in the statement that his group will remain active on the issue.
"Marriage is a true and just cause, and we will never abandon the field of battle just because we experienced a setback," he said. "There is much work to do, and we begin that process now."
Gay-rights advocates are claiming momentum now that the first states have approved gay marriage by popular vote. Until just a few weeks ago, voters had never approved gay marriage and had in fact put in place constitutional amendments to ban it. Prior to Nov. 6, only state legislatures or courts approved it. The outcome was particularly poignant in Maine, where voters in 2009 rejected gay marriage by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, and then reversed themselves by the same margin this year.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League, said the group is instructing churches to make sure their bylaws protect them from having to perform same-sex marriages if they oppose it. The league will also consider whether it's necessary to introduce legislation to further protect notaries and town clerks who will be required to serve gay couples seeking to get married.
The Maine law exempts churches and other religious institutions from being required to perform same-sex weddings, but opponents argue that it does not protect notaries public and business owners from lawsuits. Maine law approved by voters in 2005 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"I think the most immediate plan is us looking to see what the ramifications are with regard to individuals and churches that find themselves in conflict," Conley said.
In the days immediately following the vote, emails suggested that opponents might consider gathering signatures to call for a repeal of the new gay-marriage law.
"There's been a lot of talk about whether to offer another challenge," he said. "There's no way to answer that question in terms of when or if."
Conley said the issue passed in Maine because of efforts by Democrats to get voters to the polls, and he credited gay-rights supporters for getting the vote on the ballot during a presidential election.
"Everybody greatly underestimated how energized the Democratic base would be," he said. "We got our hats handed to us. We do not consider this an indictment against conservative values, but we need to look at how to effectively mobilize voters. They did an incredible job."
Yet gay-rights supporters say they sense a change in attitude nationwide that goes beyond Democratic voter turnout. It started in May, with Obama becoming the first president to endorse gay marriage, and continued to November with his re-election, Sainz said. Voters in Wisconsin made Tammy Baldwin the first openly gay woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and Iowa voters re-elected a state supreme court justice who helped bring gay marriage to that state.
Sainz also noted that more members of Congress support gay rights than ever, including U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King of Maine, who said early in his campaign that he supports gay marriage.
"It's folly for opponents of marriage equality to believe this was an isolated incident in which Americans made a wrong decision," he said. "It's spin on their part. The truth is Americans rallied to the side of equality."
Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at: