Ballot box battle looms for Maine same-sex marriage

Last week Maine became the sixth state to approve of same-sex marriage either through the courts or the state legislature. State law, though, creates a situation that most closely mirrors California more than neighboring New England states and Iowa, which have adopted the change.

In California, the state Supreme Court allowed gay marriage for a short time in 2008 before it was overturned by the Proposition 8 ballot initiative last November. The legality of Prop 8 is in the hands of the California Supreme Court again, although there is a possibility the court may uphold the amendment but still legally recognize the gay marriages which took place.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill last Thursday legalizing gay marriage. Opponents of the law immediately took advantage of a “people’s veto” law allowing them to petition. Once opponents notified the Secretary of State they were going to petition against the law, that office has 10 days to create a ballot question tied to the petition.

That means by May 21st or 22nd Bob Emrich can begin collecting signatures.

Emrich is the founder of the Jeremiah Project, an umbrella organization which rallies Maine churchgoers and social conservatives behind political issues, including gay marriage.

Emrich has pastored in Maine for 30 years along with teaching history and social studies. He created the Jeremiah Project with Jeremiah 29:7 — Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper — as the biblical basis.

“The organization is really called to do two things: To change and improve the culture and to try and help church leaders be more effective in understanding issues,” Emrich said.

The same-sex marriage debate will be the largest task the four-year-old organization will tackle.

Legally opponents have 90 days from when the legislature adjourns its session to gather the required 55,089 signatures to get the measure on the ballot in November or perhaps June 2010.

Emrich said he hopes volunteers will be able to net about 70,000 signatures to make up for various problems such as people signing in the wrong places, moving, or not realizing they aren’t properly registered to vote.

“We are getting organized to circulate the petitions,” Emrich explained. “We are having training sessions. Once the Secretary of State distributes the ballot question and we copy the petitions, we will be ready to hit the streets.”

Finding people to foot soldier door-to-door won’t be an issue.

“I have never seen the church as a whole so highly motivated,” Emrich said. “A lot of people are shaking their heads. This makes a big impact in people’s lives. Many people are real upset this was rushed through the legislature so quickly.

“With the signatures, I think that will be the easier part compared to the (political) campaign,” Emrich said. “The other side has a lot of money and a bigger, better organization right now. We will need to raise a lot of money in a short period of time and then need to work hard to get people out to vote.”

Deep fundraising coffers may not, however, be a given for same-sex marriage proponents.

“Now that it is the law of the state of Maine, we will protect that law,” Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine told The Associated Press. “It’s disappointing we would need to raise a lot of money to protect a law in Maine.”

Emrich said traditional marriage advocates were disappointed how fast the bill went through the legislature and added Baldacci “sandbagged us” by staying quiet during the debate and then signing the bill immediately after its passage.

This puts Maine in league with fellow New England states Massachusetts, which just passed the five-year anniversary of its gay marriage law, and Vermont, whose legislature approved it last month. It subsequently became law when a gubernatorial veto was overridden
Connecticut passed a same-sex marriage law at state courts’ behest.

In New Hampshire, Gov. John Lynch has yet to sign a bill approved by the Legislature there. He has said he favors civil unions – which gives gay couples many of the legal rights of heterosexual couples without the recognition of marriage – but has yet to sign or veto the bill. He has the option of neither signing nor vetoing the bill and letting it become law.

Having Maine join the ranks of regional states where gay marriage is legal would fit in with the political aspirations of GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders). Its goal is to have all six New England states allowing gay marriage by 2012, a campaign it calls “6 in ’12.”

“The (Maine) legislature not only listened, they heard,” said GLAD executive director Lee Swislow in a press statement. “They heard that marriage is not just a bundle of rights, but is dignity and respect; it is full and equal citizenship; it represents a future of hope for gay and lesbian youth.

“When we said in November that we intended to achieve marriage equality in all six New England states by 2012, people may have thought we were crazy. But having won our lawsuits in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and working with strong partners in the states, we knew it was possible. We’re proud and we’re excited, and we’re hopeful for all of New England, and for the entire country.”

Emrich countered that the legislature misread popular sentiment by its passage of the law.

“GLAD has targeted New England for the purpose of creating a stronghold,” he said. “A lot of people resent being used. The legislature is out of touch with the average person in Maine on this issue.

“The legislature and the governor saw what appears to be momentum in Vermont and New Hampshire, saw this artificial majority and thought, ‘Wow, the whole world is going this way.’ When you talk to people in communities here, that’s just not the case.”

Emrich also pointed out that no state has yet had voters approve of gay marriage, which it has come about through the legislative and judicial branches. The job of him and his allies may be complicated by the fact that Maine has ranked near the bottom of U.S. states in terms of church attendance and religious affiliation.

“We will definitely have a two-fold process,” Emrich said. “Churches will have a big role in getting petition signatures, but then there is the campaign for the actual voting. Beyond the religious debate, it’s also a matter of the public good why the government should regulate it this way.

“Even though Maine has low church affiliation numbers, it’s only true to a certain extent. If your parents went to a certain church or you were married there, you might easily say here, ‘That’s the church I belong to,’ even if you haven’t been in a long time. It’s a weird dynamic, but it’s also a sign that in small communities the church is a sign of stability.”

The sentiment expressed in a letter to supporters penned by EqualityMaine’s Smith and opinions expressed by bill sponsor State Sen. Dennis Damon also portend to the intensity of the debate to come.

“Today, the state of Maine has stated clearly what we have known for a long time: that gay and lesbian families are valued citizens, worthy of the same rights and protections as all Maine families,” Smith wrote. “Congratulations to all of you who have worked so hard to see this day come.”

“At some point I think leadership is a combination of public opinion and what’s in one’s heart,” Damon told WSCH-TV in Portland, Maine. “If you discriminate against anyone, or any group, you discriminate against everyone. That’s how I feel.”

Links:

Maine Jeremiah Project: http://www.mainejeremiahproject.com/

Maine Churches React To Gay Marriage: http://www.wcsh6.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=104513&catid=2

EqualityMaine: http://equalitymaine.org/

GLAD: http://www.glad.org/

18,000 same-sex couples await ruling in California: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103965021

 

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