AUGUSTA, Maine — Like a flashback from last fall, several hundred supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage converged on the state capital Wednesday for competing events aimed at rallying the troops for the next big fight.
When and how the battle over gay marriage will re-emerge in Maine, however, remains to be seen.
“I hope we won’t, but if we have to stand up to do it all again, we have to be ready. Are you ready?” Bob Emrich, a Baptist minister from Plymouth, asked more than 100 supporters of “traditional marriage” gathered across the street from the State House.
Emrich delivered his remarks as part of a bus tour staged by the National Organization for Marriage, which funded much of the successful 2009 effort to repeal Maine’s gay marriage law.
In an attempted pre-emptive strike, supporters of same-sex marriage held a press conference inside the State House earlier Wednesday in which they accused NOM of using the same “fearmongering” techniques employed in 2009.
Speakers also pledged to continue striving for what they see as equal protection for gay couples.
“That is a community that is ready to fight,” Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, said while standing in front a stairwell full of about 100 supporters.
Wednesday’s rallies appeared tied more to what’s happening on the national stage than any particular events here in Maine. Advocates for “marriage equality” say they have no immediate plans to pursue the issue in the Legislature but are working behind the scenes.
Last week, a U.S. District Court judge in Boston declared unconstitutional the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress. The judge said the act potentially forces states that recognize same-sex marriages to discriminate against their own citizens when administering federal benefits.
Activists on both sides of the issue are also eagerly awaiting a federal court ruling — expected any day now — on the validity of Proposition 8, the voter-approved measure in California that banned gay marriage. And earlier this week, a trial began in another federal court in California on a challenge to the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The traditional marriage rally marked the kick-off for a 19-stop, “Summer for Marriage” bus tour of Eastern, Midwestern and Southern states put together by NOM.
The organization has become a major player in the political, legal and electoral fight against gay marriage in recent years. NOM funneled nearly $2 million to Stand for Marriage Maine, the group that led the 2009 effort to overturn a state law allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.
That money funded an aggressive, late advertising campaign that appears to have helped sway voters, who rejected Maine’s gay marriage law 53 percent to 47 percent. NOM remains in a court battle with the Maine Ethics Commission, however, over an investigation that could force it to disclose the identity of its donors.
NOM President Brian Brown told the crowd his involvement in Question 1 on the November 2009 ballot in Maine was “one of the best experiences of my life,” and that Augusta was chosen for the first tour stop because of the victory in Maine.
But Brown said gay rights groups, politicians and “activist judges” threaten the will of voters in the 31 states where traditional marriage won at the ballot box.
“As great as the victory was for Question 1 the fact is there are still attempts throughout our country to say your vote doesn’t matter, that your civil right to stand up for something as simple as the definition of marriage doesn’t count,” Brown said.
Not surprisingly, civil rights was also a theme of the pro-gay marriage rally.
Carla Hopkins and Victoria Eleftheriou of Mount Vernon said the couple must pay thousands of dollars to draw up additional legal documents that would not be required if the couple were allowed to marry.
Bev Uhlenhake, a commercial real estate broker from Bangor, said her partner must go through the lengthy and costly adoption process for the twins Uhlenhake is carrying. A heterosexual couple would only have to “fill out a few lines while at the hospital.”
“Stopping people from getting married is beneficial to no one,” Uhlenhake said. “Discrimination is beneficial to no one.”
As frequently happened during the fall 2009 campaign, both sides turned to the Bible and their religious beliefs to bolster their arguments for or against state-sanctioned marriages of same-sex couples.
Charla Bansley, a private school teacher who campaigned against gay marriage in 2009, said Question 1 supporters only won “by the power of God.” In a fiery speech filled with biblical quotes, she said gay marriage opponents “must understand that the enemy will never accept defeat in their effort to destroy the family,” as defined by God.
“The meaning of marriage is written in the very nature of men and women, and it was written there by our creator,” said Emrich, a leader of Stand for Marriage Maine.
At the press conference in support of same-sex marriage, the Rev. Elsa Peters of the First Congregational Church pointed out that more than 200 spiritual leaders from throughout the state had joined a coalition supporting marriage equality. Those clergy are working to recognize the love that is real between gay, lesbian and transgender couples.
Peters said the Bible passages that spoke most to her parish on this issue state that “there is no fear in love” and that anyone who loves God must love his brother and sister.
“Marriage equality, my sister and my brothers, is so important because we haven’t cast out fear — not yet,” Peters said. “Marriage equality is so important because we need to see more love, we need to see it in each other.”
EqualityMaine’s Smith said supporters of gay marriage picked themselves up and moved on after the devastatingly disappointing loss at the polls last November.
“But we have moved on to win marriage equality for all Maine families,” Smith said.
Brown, meanwhile, said the National Organization for Marriage is staging its summer bus tour in an effort to “grow an army of people” that will be available to make its views known to Congress in the face of what he dismissed as judicial activism.