AUGUSTA, Maine — A formal challenge to the state’s new gay marriage law has been filed, setting into motion plans for a possible public vote that could be months or more than a year away.
Activists on both sides Thursday started working up strategies for campaigns leading up to a possible November referendum under a state constitutional provision known as the people’s veto.
“The wheels are turning,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s chief election official, said after opponents filed an application that sets the stage for the challenge process ahead.
Marc Mutty of the Roman Catholic Diocese said challengers expect to get the go-ahead by May 21 to begin collecting signatures to get a referendum on the bill, which was signed Wednesday by Gov. John Baldacci.
The deadline for opponents to collect at least 55,087 signatures will probably fall in mid-September, about the time the gay marriage law is due to take effect.
However, the law would be stayed as soon as the signatures are submitted to election officials for review. And the timing of when petitions are turned in will determine whether the referendum can be scheduled for this November or June 2010.
Mutty said he expects canvassing in shopping centers, churches and neighborhoods, although the details aren’t worked out.
“I expect a number of interests to come forward, including a number of national interests,” said Mutty, who is leading the campaign with Bob Emrich, founder of the Maine Jeremiah Project, a church-based public policy group.
The National Association of Marriage Enhancement — which helped drive successful referendums in Arizona, California and Florida to pass laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman — said it is looking for ways to help out.
Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said in a Thursday statement that he was “deeply disappointed” by the bill’s passage.
“We believe that the vast majority of Maine’s people believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and that calling same-sex relationships marriage doesn’t make them so,” Malone said.
The Portland Diocese, the statement read, would take a lead role in the people’s veto drive.
But supporters of Maine’s new law aren’t sitting quietly and said they plan their own campaign focusing on personal contact with friends, neighbors and relatives.
“Now that it is the law of the state of Maine, we will protect that law,” said Betsy Smith of EqualityMaine. Smith said fundraising would be a challenge given the economic climate, adding, “It’s disappointing we would need to raise a lot of money to protect a law in Maine.”
If opponents are successful in gathering enough valid signatures to force a statewide vote, it would not be the first time Mainers have weighed in on gay rights.
In 2005, Maine voters rejected an effort to repeal the law that added sexual orientation to the Maine Human Rights Act, 55 percent to 45 percent. That vote came seven years after they repealed a gay-rights law at the polls, 52 percent to 48 percent.
Last summer, an initiative campaign to repeal Maine’s civil rights law and put in place roadblocks to gay marriages and adoptions was abandoned after supporters only gathered a third of the 15,000 signatures they hoped to on June 10, the date of the 2008 primary election.
The issue of gay marriage is also being considered in neighboring New Hampshire, where the Legislature sanctioned same-sex unions on Wednesday. Gov. John Lynch has not decided whether he’ll sign the bill.
The phone in Lynch’s reception room rang constantly Thursday with callers either pleading for him to sign the bill or veto it.
Lynch’s spokesman, Colin Manning, said the bill was being reviewed before being sent to the governor’s office. Once it arrives, Lynch will have five days to sign it, veto it or decide to let it become law without his signature.
BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.