LEWISTON – Less than two years after their loss in a statewide vote, supporters of gay marriage said Thursday that they are ready to try again.

Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, told about 150 people who gathered in front of Lewiston City Hall that gay-marriage supporters “lost at the ballot, but we were not defeated.”

“We intend to finish the job that we began in 2009 and bring marriage equality to Maine,” she said at a news conference announcing that paperwork will be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office to begin a petition drive to put gay marriage back on the ballot.

Smith called the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York last week an “inspiring and historic moment” and said supporters in Maine hope to build on that momentum. Six states and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage.

In 2009, Maine lawmakers passed and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. Opponents initiated a people’s veto by gathering enough signatures to put the new law on the ballot, and Maine voters overturned it by a vote of about 53 percent to 47 percent.

Smith said volunteers have spent time since that referendum working to change voters’ minds through phone banks and “community conversations” in places such as Lewiston.

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Maine’s second-largest city, Lewiston voted against gay marriage in 2009. Now, supporters think it is one of the key places where they need to succeed.

The organizers’ goal is to gather enough Maine voters’ signatures by January — about 57,000 — to qualify for the November 2012 ballot. But, Smith said, certain benchmarks will have to be met before supporters will turn in the petitions.

“We have to change hearts and minds — we have a goal of changing 15,000 voters from opposing marriage to supporting it by the summer of 2012, so it’s important that we are on track to do that,” she said. “And we need to raise money.”

Smith said gay-marriage supporters’ enthusiasm is “overwhelming,” but not all of them are convinced that an effort so soon after the defeat will succeed.

“Nobody wants to lose,” she said. “We are not going to move this effort forward unless we believe we can win this campaign.”

Supporters of gay marriage touted a recent poll that showed about 53 percent of Mainers approve of allowing gays and lesbians to marry. A poll leading up to the referendum in 2009 showed similar results.

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Past opponents of legalizing gay marriage said they are confident that if the petition drive is successful, Mainers will again defeat the effort.

“The vote was pretty clear before; nothing has happened to change the minds of the people of the state of Maine,” said the Rev. Bob Emrich, who helped lead the people’s veto in 2009 and is now chairman of the board of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

Emrich said no state has approved gay marriage by referendum.

“It grieves me that the people of Maine have to go through another campaign like that, but if that needs to be, so be it,” he said.

Marc Mutty, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, took a paid leave of absence from his post in 2009 to help run the people’s veto campaign. He said the church will “continue to speak out against this issue.”

But he reaffirmed his previous statement that he will never again assume a lead campaign role on the issue.

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“I personally, for my own well-being, don’t wish to take this on in that kind of capacity,” he said. “For whatever reason, it is one (issue) that brings out visceral reactions in people and separates families and separates friendships. It just has a tremendous emotional impact on people and so, because of that, it was an extremely difficult campaign to be running.”

Emrich and Mutty said the decision by lawmakers in New York to legalize gay marriage will not have an effect on Mainers.

Smith was joined at Thursday’s event by Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert; the Rev. Michael Gray, a United Methodist pastor in Old Orchard Beach; Michelle Mondor, a Roman Catholic mother from Biddeford; and representatives from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

Gray, a self-described conservative, said his position on gay marriage has evolved over the years.

“What I learned was that gay folks are no different than me in all the ways that truly matter,” he said.

He said the proposed initiative would seek to strengthen religious protections and “ensure that churches and clergy in Maine are protected from having to perform any marriage that violates their own tradition’s beliefs.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

 


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