On Nov. 3, Maine will either make history as the first state where voters grant same-sex couples the right to marry or join the ranks of the dozens of other states where “traditional marriage” has prevailed at the polls.
With the race over Question 1 apparently too close to call, national money and attention are pouring in as voters grapple with some of society’s thorniest cultural issues from religion and sex to health care, child rearing and constitutional rights.
For gay couples like Doug Kimmel and Ron Schwizer, who celebrated their 40th anniversary this summer, it’s a chance to be recognized as lifelong partners rather than “legal strangers” who happen to have shared a home for four decades.
“It’s basically an issue of equality and fairness, a civil rights issue,” Kimmel said recently in the Hancock home the two have co-owned since 1981. “It doesn’t mean they approve of us … It just simply means Maine will not discriminate against couples based on gender in marriage.”
For others, like Ron and Elaine Cummings, their passionate opinions have religious roots. The couple strongly believes all people should be treated equally — and respectfully — and that same-sex couples should enjoy the same legal benefits as married heterosexuals.
It’s the word “marriage” that fuels the religious couple’s opposition to Maine’s new law, which is suspended pending the Nov. 3 vote.
“I think that God ordained marriage,” said Elaine Cummings. “I believe, as a Catholic, that marriage is ordained in the church. I have nothing against civil unions, per se. It’s just when it gets into marriage that it bothers me.”
Spotlight on Maine
Maine’s Legislature was not breaking new ground when it voted to permit same-sex couples to marry while allowing clergy and churches to decline to perform the ceremonies.
Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa already permit gay marriage, and New Hampshire will join the group on Jan. 1.
But a vote upholding Maine’s law on Election Day would be historic.
Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and every time the issue has been put to a statewide vote, it has been rejected.
Many of the same players in last November’s political fight in California, where voters overturned a gay marriage law, have now turned their attention on Maine.
“I do believe Maine is now the number one fight throughout the country,” Brian Brown, executive director of the anti-gay marriage group National Organization for Marriage, said recently. “Of course it’s critical.”
The latest campaign finance figures will not be available until Oct. 13. However, it is clear that both sides have massive war chests for a Maine race.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has contributed more than $378,000 to the anti-gay-marriage campaign so far — including more than $210,000 from other dioceses and bishops around the nation.
Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which played a key role in the California defeat, contributed $160,000 to Stand for Marriage Maine during the last financial reporting period — and more since.
The other side has received hefty donations from the Human Rights Campaign as well as financial or campaign support from California Equality and the Courage Campaign, another California-based group.
Additionally, the Democratic fundraising Web site ActBlue.com reportedly has raised in excess of $1 million for the campaign to defend same-sex marriage in Maine.
All of those contributions are fueling an advertising war in which both sides accuse the other of distorting the truth, misleading the public and being led by outside interests.
The airwaves will only become more crowded — and the ads more intense — as Election Day approaches in what has truly become a national campaign, according to University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer.
“This is a big deal for both sides,” Brewer said. “For the same-sex marriage supporters, the tide has been changing in their favor nationally and they want to continue that. But it’s also a very important chance for those opposed to same-sex marriage to stop that momentum.”
On Aug. 19, 1969, Schwizer and Kimmel exchanged vows and rings during a traditional wedding ceremony officiated by a Presbyterian minister in Boulder, Colo.
At the time, the pair knew their union had no legal significance. Schwizer said the idea of two men or two women legally marrying was completely foreign to themselves and everyone else they knew.
“It’s something that one might hope to do at some point, but no expectation that it would ever come in our lifetime,” added Kimmel, a retired psychologist who has written about gender issues.
On Aug. 19 of this year, about 150 people gathered in the couple’s hometown of Hancock to help them celebrate 40 years together. The event doubled as a fundraiser to help protect the Maine law that would allow them to marry again — this time legally.
Seated recently in their modest home overlooking Taunton Bay, Schwizer and Kimmel explained that marriage would alleviate a host of legal complications on medical decisions, powers of attorney and other things married couples take for granted.
“Despite the fact that we’ve spent equal money and built the house together, if one of us should die, the other has to pay inheritance tax on the other half of the property,” said Schwizer, the former assistant head of school for academics at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.
“We’ve got two big, thick binders of legal documents downstairs that [our attorney] has prepared for each of us that contain all of the paperwork that we need, and I am still not convinced that would allow us to authorize the undertaker to take away the deceased person’s body,” said Kimmel.
Equal, but not ‘married’
Those are exactly the types of legal rights that all couples — straight or gay — should enjoy under Maine law, according to Ron and Elaine Cummings.
“We believe every person has dignity and every person should be treated equally and with respect,” Elaine Cummings said. “It doesn’t matter if you are old or young or gay or straight or sick or well.”
The Brewer couple’s spiritual beliefs tell them, however, that a same-sex union cannot be called a marriage.
Like many opponents of Maine’s law, the Cummings say that gay marriage goes against tradition and the “natural order.” They believe the traditional family structure of a man, woman and children is the “basic unit of society.”
The Cummings also took issue with activists on the other side, who they say wrongly portray anyone who wants to repeal Maine’s law as bigots or anti-gay.
“It seems like that’s the last vestige of defense, like ‘Well, you must be prejudiced,’ and that’s not true,” said Ron Cummings, a retired Air Force hospital administrator. “What we have a problem with is redefining the family unit.”
Ron Cummings expressed those concerns in a letter to the editor published recently in this newspaper. About a week later, he received an anonymous letter from someone explaining that his gay son had committed suicide because of persecution.
The writer’s heartbreak certainly struck a chord with the parents. The couple has a daughter, now in graduate school, and Ron Cummings has three children from a previous marriage. But the Cummingses see no relation between persecution of gays and lesbians, which they said is illegal and morally wrong, and a bill that they believe changes centuries of marriage tradition rooted in religion.
“I think a lot of people don’t see it that way, they see it as the same issue, but we don’t,” said Elaine Cummings, a social worker. “We see it as two separate issues.”
The race for votes
What little statewide polling has been done so far suggests that Mainers are nearly evenly split on the issue. A recent poll by the Daily Kos, a liberal online site, reported that 48 percent of the 600 respondents planned to vote to repeal the same-sex marriage law while 46 percent planned to vote to uphold it. Six percent were undecided.
UMaine’s Brewer predicts the race will remain extremely tight through Election Day unless one side commits a major political gaff.
“I think this is ultimately going to come down to turnout and which side is going to better mobilize their supporters and get them out to the polls or to submit absentee ballots,” he said.
Both campaigns have been running in top gear for weeks.
Stand for Marriage Maine and its supporters, after collecting more than 100,000 signatures to trigger the statewide vote, have continued their grass-roots campaign focused largely on churches and conservative groups.
“Every day counts,” said campaign spokesman Scott Fish. “You have 24 hours in a day and you have to make the best of it.”
No on 1/Protect Maine Equality has dozens of volunteers from Maine and other states who have chosen to spend their vacations working the phones or going door to door for the campaign.
The two sides are engaged in a fast-paced advertising war in which new ads quickly prompt response ads from the other side.
In a repeat of campaign strategy used successfully in California, Stand for Marriage Maine has suggested repeatedly in ads that the law could lead to gay marriage being taught in public schools. The other side, as well as state education officials, have said the law has nothing to do with education.
“This is the entire crux of the Yes on 1 advertising campaign, and we have been telling people all along that this is about marriage equality,” not education, said Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for the No on 1 campaign.
The wait continues
Given the fact that this is an off-year election with only a few high-profile governor’s races in other states, it’s clear that Maine will be in the national spotlight on Nov. 3.
By then, the Cummings will be at their home in Florida where the retirees now spend the winter. In fact, the Maine natives are disappointed that they won’t be casting votes this election, having switched their residency to Florida just a year ago.
“I hope it’s done without any backlash against anybody,” Elaine Cummings said. “I just don’t see any reason, if it goes either way, to have any hostilities.”
Likewise, Schwizer and Kimmel will be watching closely. They already are discussing plans to get legally hitched — or remarried, to them — around Thanksgiving should the law stand, a prospect that Kimmel called “wonderful.”
But Schwizer added: “It won’t change who we are as people and as a loving couple if, in fact, the law doesn’t go through.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.