August 29, 2012

Maine making history on marriage

Voters will be the first in the U.S. to be asked to approve gay nuptials by popular vote.

By SUSAN M. COVER Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA - Across the country, voters have banned or rejected same-sex marriage at the ballot box more than 30 times since 1998.

click image to enlarge

Whitney Gifford of Bucksport leads a group of gay marriage supporters carrying signed petitions to the Secretary of State's office in Augusta on Jan. 26, 2012. Maine voters will be the first in the nation to be asked to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote.

2012 file photo/The Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

click image to enlarge

This year, as four states consider the issue, Maine voters will be the first in the nation to be asked by same-sex marriage supporters to approve it by popular vote. Until now, voters have been asked only to ban it or reject it.

The idea of being on offense for a change appeals to supporters.

"At some point, we are going to win one of these campaigns at the ballot box," said Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage. "I really do believe Maine will be that state."

In the six states where same-sex marriage is legal, it's because the courts or state lawmakers approved it. But in 31 states, there are constitutional bans, which makes it much more difficult for gay advocates to advance their agenda. That leaves just 13 states in play, and four of those states -- Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington -- will vote this fall.

In Minnesota, voters are being asked to approve a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and if it passes, the Gopher State would become the 32nd in the country with such a ban. Maryland and Washington state voters will decide whether to repeal laws allowing same-sex marriage that were passed by their legislatures and signed by their Democratic governors.

While voters across the country have rejected same-sex marriage for 14 years, one national expert says what makes this year different is a shift in public opinion.

Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, points to a poll released in April by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that shows 47 percent of Americans indicating support for same-sex marriage, with 43 percent opposed.

"The significant thing this year is the change in attitude as indicated by polls," she said.

Bowser's analysis of voting results shows that in 2005, nearly 70 percent of voters nationwide opposed same-sex marriage. By 2009, the opposition had weakened to 53 percent. But there's plenty of room for variation: In the most recent statewide vote on the issue, North Carolina voters easily approved a constitutional ban in May with 61 percent support.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said he learned some lessons while in North Carolina on the day of the vote.

"We were told they (same-sex marriage opponents) were really in trouble, and we weren't just hearing it from the media, but from inside sources," said Conley, who is helping to run Protect Marriage Maine, the leading opponent of same-sex marriage.

But the polls were wrong and the strength of clergy was underestimated, he said. After recently traveling Maine to meet with clergy, Conley is feeling good about the campaign in Maine.

"The advantage we have is the vast majority of clergy has an opportunity weekly to address this issue for the next 11 weeks," he said. "That doesn't cost us anything."

While there are regional differences on the issue -- Bowser's analysis shows consistently stronger opposition in the South -- Maine has a relatively recent history of voting on the issue as well. In 2009, Maine voters rejected same-sex marriage 53 percent to 47 percent.

The question on the ballot in 2009 asked voters: "Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?"

Brian Brown, director of the National Organization for Marriage, which provided the bulk of the funding for same-sex marriage opponents in 2009, says the outcome in Maine will be the same this time around. He said same-sex marriage supporters have been effective in trying to claim that voters have changed their minds, but the outcome in North Carolina challenges that conclusion.

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