ELECTION 09: Maine set for historic 'gay marriage' vote

by Michael Foust, posted Friday, October 16, 2009 (9 years ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of special stories previewing key elections this fall.

AUGUSTA, Maine (BP)--It's a scenic shot that anyone who has been in the New England states has seen on a postcard, if not in person: A picturesque small town surrounded by rolling hills, with a little white church and a tall steeple soaring in the sky.

At first glance, then, it can be puzzling to learn that New England states occupy the top four spots in Gallup's 2009 rankings for the "least religious states" in America, and that all six New England states rank in the Top 10.

That's the environment that traditionally minded groups in Maine find themselves in, trying to pass Question 1, a "People's Veto" initiative on the Nov. 3 ballot that would reverse a recently signed law legalizing "gay marriage." The region has never voted on the issue.

If it fails, it will make history: No state has ever voted at the ballot to approve "gay marriage."

Passage, meanwhile, also would be historic, with homosexual groups losing in a region they consider their strength.

Working against Question 1 is Maine's lack of religiosity, particularly its lack of conservative Christianity. It was No. 3 on Gallup's list of "least religious states."

"Maine tends to be left-leaning in its Protestantism. Unfortunately, the little white church you see in all the little New England towns tends to be ... left-leaning," Tim Kezar, pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church in North Berwick, Maine, told Baptist Press. New Covenant is a Southern Baptist congregation that has about 80-100 attendees on Sunday mornings, a typical size for a Maine church in a state where mega-churches are nearly non-existent. New Covenant is among the state's theologically conservative churches.

Thirty states have voted on the issue of "gay marriage," with the traditional side winning every time. But this is the first such vote in the Northeast.

"Gay marriage" bans typically have passed in states where religion is prominent. Among Gallup's Top 10 "most religious" states, all but one (North Carolina) has banned "gay marriage" at the ballot. Among the Top 10 "least religious," only three (Alaska, Oregon and Nevada) have passed ballot bans. (Gallup asked, "Is religion an important part of your daily life?")

But even with the state's religious demographics, Question 1 might pass. It led by 3 points in a September poll but trailed by 9 points in an October poll -- two surveys that Question 1 supporters said were framed in biased polling language. "Gay marriage" bans have a history of outperforming pre-election polls. For instance, a Wisconsin marriage amendment in 2006 polled anywhere from 48 to 51 percent in pre-election polls but passed 59-41 percent, and an Oregon amendment in 2004 polled around 50 percent but passed 56-44 percent.

Both sides believe it will be a tight race that depends on turnout. Working in Question 1's favor is the fact that the state's Catholic and Protestant churches are working together to pass it. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has a pro-Question 1 video on its website and a link to the website for Stand for Marriage Maine (StandForMarriageMaine.com), the primary group behind Question 1.

A Mainer all his life, Kezar, 41, believes the vote has national implications. Homosexual groups certainly agree. The Boston-based group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) is working to see every New England state legalize "gay marriage" by 2012 and they're well on their way: Five of the six states there have legalized "gay marriage," with Rhode Island the lone holdout. If Question 1 passes, that number will be trimmed back to four. GLAD Executive Director Lee Swislow has said New England "is poised to set an example for the entire country.”

"I really believe that the gay rights movement has selected New England as an area that they can win," Kezar said. "Their idea is to build momentum here and to take it nationally. They chose New England because we have become more and more politically left-leaning and theologically left-leaning.... You can see that in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. If they can win here and get the whole of New England, then they're going to go elsewhere."

Bob Emrich, a spokesperson for Stand for Marriage Maine, said he believes conservatives, both statewide and nationwide, "are not understanding" the national implications of the vote. Stand for Marriage Maine was outraised 2-to-1 through the end of September by Protect Maine Equality, the chief opposition group. Those figures were not released by the state until Oct. 13, confirming Emrich's fears that his group had been far behind in cash. That same day Stand for Marriage Maine sent out an e-mail saying Question 1 could still win, but only if lots of money was raised, and soon.

"The other side is looking for momentum. They've never won when it comes to a ballot," Emrich told BP. "If they're able to gain a victory here in Maine, then they will claim there's a whole shift in momentum. They will claim the whole Northeast corner of the United States and they will say that that signals a change in the culture of the whole country."

Because it's an off-year election, the result may depend on which side is more energized. There is no presidential, gubernatorial or congressional election on the ballot that typically would draw people to the polls. In fact, there are only six referenda on the ballot: four citizen initiatives, one bond question and one constitutional amendment. Question 1 is a citizen initiative and was placed on the ballot through the petition process.

Among the other prominent referenda on the ballot is a citizen initiative Taxpayers Bill of Rights (Question 4) that would force the state government to allow voters to have a say on tax increases. Although that question may draw out conservative voters, Question 5 could bring out liberal voters. It would change Maine's medical marijuana law by broadening the number of medical conditions that can be treated. It also would set up distribution centers.

Still, the supporters and opponents of Question 1 believe they must depend on their issue -- and their issue alone -- to get people to the polls. The statewide voting pattern likely will mirror that of other states: the cities opposing it, rural areas supporting it.

Carole Edgerly, a pastor's wife who helped lead the signature drive at Farmington Baptist Church (SBC), said Question 1 only will win "through prayer and encouraging people to go to the polls."

"It depends on getting the word out and motivating people," she told BP. "I think if Christians are motivated … and we all respond like we did to the people's petition, I think we're going to be OK."

Emrich said too many Mainers -- and Americans for that matter -- fail to recognize the implications of legalizing "gay marriage," specifically its impact on what will be taught in public schools.

"It's not a matter of whether or not there's a state mandate [to teach about it]," Emrich said. "... Once it becomes state law, how can anyone ignore it? You can't just not talk about. If it becomes state law, that means that the school, at the very least, is going to be obligated to talk about how the law is changed. It will be a part of all the literature. Parents don't have the option to just pick and choose what their children are taught; the school doesn't have to notify them. The school can just say, 'This is perfectly legal and it's in keeping with the state law, so why should we have to notify parents?'"


Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For information on how you can help pass Maine Question 1, visit http://www.standformarriagemaine.com. To read how "gay marriage" impacts society visit http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=30209.

Download Story