PORTLAND, Maine — Supporters of same-sex marriage pressed their case Wednesday for adding language to the draft ballot question released last week by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.
The suggested question, “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?” falls short, Matt McTighe, campaign director of Mainers United for Marriage, said at a press conference.
“It fails to address important parts of the initiative that will be on the ballot in November,” McTighe said. “Mainers United will present our case to the Secretary of State and ask that the question be revised to more accurately reflect the citizens’ initiative that was signed by more than 105,000 Mainers and already certified by the Secretary of State.”
McTighe said the language in the question that appears on the ballot should be more similar to the one that was used during the petition drive.
That question was: “Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples that protects religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?”
Opponents of same-sex marriage last week and again on Wednesday also expressed concern over the wording of the draft question.
“We believe this language is a step in the right direction,” Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said last week. “It correctly removes the attempt to deceptively allay legitimate concerns regarding religious liberty issues surrounding the attempt to legalize so-called ‘same-sex’ marriage. It doesn’t, however, go far enough in addressing the fact this referendum is indeed an attempt to redefine marriage, and we would like to see the ballot specifically include that wording.”
Conley said Wednesday that the so-called religious exemption isn’t legally necessary because the religious exemption is covered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Supporters conceded at the press conference that that was true.
The president of the board of directors for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said at the press conference that the wording of the draft question did not meet the requirements set out in state law for ballot initiatives.
“While Maine statutes give the Secretary of State latitude in the formation of a ballot question for a citizens’ initiative, Title 21-A requires that questions be simple, clear, concise and direct as they describe the subject matter of the question,” John Paterson of Portland said. “The draft citizens’ initiative question may qualify as ‘concise,’ but it does not meet the requirement to describe the subject matter of the proposal put before voters.”
Paterson also said that in 2009, when Maine voters repealed the same-sex marriage law by 53 percent to 47 percent, the religious exemption language was included in the question.
“This isn’t 2009,” Conley said when asked to respond to Paterson’s remark about what was on the ballot three years ago. “We repealed their law. That was their language.”
McTighe also said that it was important that the religious exemption be included in the question because of the claims opponents to same-sex marriage have made in the past and in other states. He said that opponents of same-sex marriage “distort the facts around what the approval of same-sex marriage will do, including the possibility that churches would lose their tax-exempt status by refusing to perform same-sex marriages.”
A paragraph on the website for Protect Marriage Maine, the main organization opposing the referendum, references churches’ tax-exempt status.
“By changing the law, legal experts warn that there will be serious and widespread consequences for society,” it states. “Those people who refuse to accept this new definition of marriage as genderless could be punished, and churches and religious organizations could lose their tax exemptions and be forced to discard their core moral principles in order to be compliant with the law.”
Conley said Wednesday that that paragraph is a reference to what could happen in the future on a national level once laws passed throughout the country have been interpreted by the courts.
“We know from what has happened in other countries such as Canada and Europe that some of those things happened after marriage laws were changed,” he said Wednesday.
Two years ago, a Baptist street preacher in England was charged with causing harassment, alarm or distress for reciting a list of “sins” referred to in the Bible, such as blasphemy, drunkenness and same-sex relationship, according to the Telegraph, an English newspaper based in London.
“The 42-year-old Baptist, who has preached Christianity in Workington, Cumbria for years, said he did not mention homosexuality while delivering a sermon from the top of a stepladder, but admitted telling a passing shopper that he believed it went against the word of God,” the article, published on May 2, 2010, said.
That kind of concern was not expressed Wednesday by the Rev. Michael Gray, who was the first person to sign the petition asking that the same-sex marriage question be put before voters. But he did urge the Secretary of State’s Office to add the religious exemption language to the question.
“The current draft ballot language — while apparently straightforward — is not faithful to the intent of this initiative, and it does not capture the additional religious protections that are included in the citizens’ initiative,” the pastor of Old Orchard Beach United Methodist Church said. “I could not, in good faith, support this initiative if it did not make explicit that no church, member of the clergy or other religious institution can be required to perform or host any marriage that is a violation of their religious beliefs.”
The question was drafted by the secretary of state with assistance from senior staff and the attorney general’s office, according to a press release issued last week by the Secretary of State’s Office.
The public has 30 days to comment on the proposed wording. Secretary of State Charlie Summers then has 10 days to craft the final wording of the question.