Same-sex marriage challenge advances

Posted July 31, 2009, at 11:06 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of Maine’s new law allowing same-sex couples to marry delivered more than 100,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Friday as part of their effort to force a November referendum on the issue.

About 40 supporters of the Stand for Marriage Maine coalition held an energetic press conference on the State House grounds Friday morning before lugging 18 boxes full of petition signatures into the nearby state office building.

A loud cheer went up from the group when the last box was stacked on top of a hand truck inside the secretary of state’s office.

“I wanted to be part of it,” Jacky Willhoite, pastor of Apostolic Church in Augusta, said after state officials officially accepted the petitions. “I feel it is very important. Families are at stake.”

Certification of at least 55,087 of the 100,373 signatures will result in a question appearing on the November ballot asking voters whether they want to repeal the same-sex marriage law.

Leaders of the petition drive said they believe the fact they were able to collect so many signatures over a relatively short time underscores deep discontent among Mainers toward the new law.

“We are here today to witness this — that 1,260-some volunteers and over 100,000 Maine citizens have already said no,” said the Rev. Bob Emrich, one of Stand for Marriage Maine’s leaders. “And they did so because they believe there is still a duty and a benefit to nurture and promote the unique institution of traditional mar-riage.”

Supporters of Maine’s same-sex marriage bill have been busy gearing up for the widely anticipated campaign.

In addition to an aggressive fundraising campaign that had solicited more than $138,000 in donations as of early July, organizers of Maine Freedom to Marry said Thursday they have gathered more than 60,000 signatures from people who support the law.

Jesse Connolly with Maine Freedom to Marry said Friday’s event was no surprise. It only underscored the importance of the campaign ahead, he said.

“It’s a marker in time,” Connolly said of Friday’s filing. “Everyone working on this effort … knew that we were going to have to win in both the Legislature and at the ballot box.”

Maine is shaping up to be the latest battleground state in the cultural and political war over the legal definition of marriage.

Four other states grant gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. But opponents of same-sex marriage point out that such laws have never survived a statewide vote.

Both sides of the issue already are attracting nationwide attention and money. According to campaign finance reports filed with the state ethics commission earlier this month, Stand for Marriage Maine had raised $346,690 — including $160,000 from the National Organization for Marriage — in roughly one month.

And while the Secretary of State’s Office has yet to confirm the “people’s veto” effort, both sides have been operating full-fledged campaigns for weeks now.

Maine Freedom to Marry held a press event in Portland on Thursday — the day before Stand for Marriage Maine’s event in Augusta — to announce it had collected the 60,000 signatures. The organization also announced the name of its campaign: “No on One/Protect Maine Equality.”

Both sides already are accusing the other of being run or financed by out-of-state interest groups.

Connolly suggested that the larger number of petitions submitted Friday was due, in large part, to the fact that Stand for Marriage Maine had hired an outside agency to help with the signature-gathering process.

Obviously anticipating such comments, Emrich had said earlier that a registered Maine voter had to witness every signature that was collected. Speakers at Friday’s event also accused the Legislature of caving in to “immense pressure” from lobbyists and national gay rights organizations.

A public hearing held in April in Augusta on the gay marriage bill, LD 1020, drew more than 3,000 people.

Supporters of the bill, who significantly outnumbered critics, framed their arguments in terms of civil rights and promoting family values by enabling loving, monogamous individuals to marry, regardless of their gender.

Speakers told emotional stories about being denied the right to stand by the side of their partner of several decades while he or she was dying in the hospital, and of being unable to carry out their longtime partner’s wishes for funeral arrangements. Couples said that the most important part of raising children is a strong, loving family — not the sexual identity of the parents.

Bill opponents often couched their concerns in religious terms, reading passages from the Bible that they said decry same-sex unions. Many of those same undertones were present Friday as opponents of the law predicted that allowing same-sex marriages would undermine the strength and stability of families.

“Healthy marriages with children that have both the benefit a mother and a father lead to strong families. This is an undeniable fact,” said Brian Souchet, who appeared with his wife, Kym, and children. “Strong families lead to strong societies.”

The Secretary of State’s Office will spend the next several weeks reviewing the validity of the signatures. The new law is scheduled to go into effect in September; however, certification of the signatures will suspend enactment pending the results of the November vote.

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

623-0024

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