Maine churches launch effort to reverse 'gay marriage' law
AUGUSTA, Maine (BP)--If California can do it, then so can Maine -- that's at least what Carole Edgerly of Farmington Baptist Church in Maine believes.
She's leading an effort in her church to gather signatures for a "People's Veto" in hopes of overturning the state's recently passed law legalizing "gay marriage." She and others like her are looking to California -- a left-leaning state that that banned "gay marriage" last November -- for inspiration.
"We [also] are up against a very liberal state," Edgerly, a pastor's wife, told Baptist Press. "... Everything that starts out on the West Coast ends up on the East Coast. We're not giving up."
Farmington Baptist is one of hundreds of Protestant and Catholic churches statewide that are working against a two-month deadline to gather 55,000 signatures to put the question of "gay marriage" on the November ballot. The Democratic-controlled legislature and Democratic governor recently approved the law, but thanks to a unique section of the state constitution, that's not the end of the story. The People's Veto law allows citizens to gather signatures -- 55,000 are needed this year -- to overturn any recently enacted law. The "gay marriage" law has yet to go into effect and won't do so until the signature effort fails or citizens OK such unions.
The People's Veto has been implemented fairly frequently throughout the state's history, including last year when voters rejected a law that would have partially financed the state's subsidized health care system with new taxes on liquor, wine and soft drinks.
This year's People's Veto, though, likely will receive far more attention than past ones.
The clock already is ticking on the effort. Technically, supporters have 90 days after the legislature adjourns -- it's scheduled to do so as early as this weekend -- to gather the signatures. But if they wait that long, the veto won't be on the ballot until next summer, and they want it on the ballot this November. With that in mind, they need to finish collecting the signatures by the end of July, if possible.
Maine is being watched closely nationwide by both sides of the issue, not only to see if the signature drive succeeds, but also to test voters' sentiments in a corner of the country -- the Northeast -- that has never had a statewide vote on "gay marriage." Although voters in 30 states have voted on the issue -- with all 30 voting against "gay marriage" -- the Northeast has been a holdout, mostly because left-leaning legislatures have refused to put the matter on the ballot. Of the five New England states that have legalized "gay marriage," Maine is the only one where citizens can have a direct say, unimpeded by the legislature.
Farmington Baptist, a Southern Baptist congregation, has placed petitions in the church foyer and, Edgerly says, "people have been signing." Hosanna Church in Oxford, Maine, is another church that is offering the petitions to its members. Dallas E. Henry, who serves as board of directors president for the Maine Family Policy Council, is a pastor at Hosanna.
"People are excited and gathering significant numbers of signatures," he said. "They are sickened by the fact that ... the legislature keeps voting for these laws that the people of Maine do not want. They are frustrated, very frustrated."
There's been little polling done in the state on the issue, although a Pan Atlantic SMS Group poll of 400 Maine adults in April found that given three options, 39 percent supported "gay marriage," 34.5 percent same-sex civil unions and 23 percent opposed all legal recognition for homosexual couples.
Henry, who has helped collect signatures for past People's Veto efforts, said participation by churches on this year's effort is "very critical."
"I believe the church will probably either make or break it," he said.
Although church participation on issues of legislation and morality has widely been viewed as legal under IRS tax-exempt status code, a self-labeled homosexual civil rights organization -- the Empowered Spirits Foundation -- filed a complaint in May with the IRS, claiming that the Catholic Diocese of Portland violated IRS law by publicly backing the proposed People's Veto, Maine Public Broadcasting Network reported. But Catholic diocese officials say they are following the law, and religious freedom attorneys have discounted the complaint as a harmless threat meant to intimidated churches into not participating.
"IRS regulations are very clear that a church is allowed to support or oppose legislation -- including initiatives and referendums -- as long as it does not constitute a substantial part of the church's activities," Erik Stanley, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization, told Baptist Press. "... Basically, if it's under about 15 percent of a church's activities overall, a church is allowed to do that. That's such a high threshold. Most churches never have more than that."
A church, Stanley said, can gather signatures, address the issue from the pulpit and even take a church vote to formally endorse the People's Veto effort.
"All of that is perfectly permissible," he said. "No one is going to get in trouble with the IRS for doing that."
Henry, the Hosanna Church pastor, believes participation by the state's Catholic leaders can play a critical role, particularly if the issue makes it on the ballot. It's the first time, he said, that the Catholic diocese has officially participated in a statewide ballot on homosexuality; the diocese chose not to take an official stance on past initiatives involving laws that placed "sexual orientation" alongside race in the law for protected classes.
If the People's Veto does qualify for the ballot, then the public debate -- particularly TV and radio ads -- likely will follow the lead that conservatives in California set. From the get-go last fall, supporters of California Proposition 8 argued that if "gay marriage" remained legal it would be taught as normative in the public schools. Henry points to Massachusetts, where a second-grade class in Lexington was read a book ("King & King") about a prince "marrying" another prince -- despite objections from parents.
"When homosexuality laws -- especially gay marriage laws -- have passed, then it opens the door to all kinds of other things that no one dreamed it would do," he said. "It has a secondary effect that they didn't expect to happen."
Joey Marshall, pastor of Living Stone Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Standish, Maine, also has concerns about the law's effect.
"Same-sex marriage not only goes against our biblical convictions, but it also destroys the values of traditional families in Maine," he told BP. "My 17-month-old daughter has already watched a commercial featuring a lesbian household. This commercial aired just moments after the governor signed the bill into law. We are deeply concerned about the long-term effects that same-sex marriage will have on our children and grandchildren."
Marshall's church sent representatives to the state capital to speak out against the bill when it was debated and now will help gather signatures to, they hope, help overturn the law. He is preaching through 1 Corinthians, a book that deals with homosexuality and "God's design for marriage," he said. The church also has set up a table with petitions that Marshall is encouraging members to sign.
Edgerly, of Farmington Baptist Church, said Christians "need to take a stand on God's Word"
"We are very privileged to live in a state where the people have the last word," she said. "In some of the states, a court decided [the issue of gay marriage] and in other states the legislature decided. But in Maine, the legislature makes their decision, the governor makes his decision and then the people have the right to veto."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For more information about the Maine People's Veto signature drive, visit MaineMarriage.net and StandforMarriageMaine.com. Each petition circulator must be certified by the city or town clerk (there is no fee). To read how "gay marriage" impacts parental rights and religious freedom click here.