Less than a week before Maine voters decide whether to repeal the state’s new same-sex marriage law, donations and volunteers are pouring in to sway what both sides call a nationally significant fight.
Supporters of the marriage law, which the Legislature approved in May, have far more money and ground troops than opponents, who have been led by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet most polls show the two sides neck and neck, suggesting that gay couples here, as in California last year, could lose the right to marry just six months after they gained it.
Although Maine’s population is a tiny fraction of California’s and the battle here has been comparatively low profile, it comes at a crucial point in the same-sex marriage movement. Still reeling from last year’s defeat in California, gay-rights advocates say a defeat here could further a perception that only judges and politicians embrace same-sex marriage.
If Maine’s law is upheld, however, it would be the movement’s first victory at the ballot box; voters in about 30 states have banned same-sex marriage.
Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont allow gay couples to marry, but courts and legislatures, not voters, made it possible.
“It’s a defining moment,” said Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, which is leading the repeal effort. “What happens here in Maine is going to have a mushrooming effect on the issue at large.”
Maine had planned to allow same-sex marriage starting in September, but put it off until the referendum is decided. It is the only state with a same-sex marriage question on its ballot this fall.
The outcome could have particular resonance in California, where same-sex marriage supporters have been debating how soon to seek a repeal of their own state’s ban.
Mr. Mutty’s group has repeatedly warned voters that if same-sex marriage survives in Maine, public schools will most likely teach children about it. That strategy proved effective in California, and even after Maine’s attorney general announced this month that the state would not require same-sex marriage to be taught, opponents have continued raising the possibility.
One of their television advertisements warns that in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2003, some teachers answer “thoroughly and explicitly” when students ask about gay sex.
But Stand for Marriage has not been able to advertise nearly as much as the lead group campaigning to save the law. That group, Protect Maine Equality, has raised $4 million, compared with Stand for Marriage’s $2.6 million. Its overarching message is that all people, including gay men and lesbians, should be treated equally under the law.
“You may disagree,” a gray-haired lobsterman says in a Protect Maine Equality advertisement, “but people have a right to live the way they want to live.”
The group has raised much of its money on the Internet, where it has also recruited volunteers from around the country with a Web site, www.travelforchange.org. Stace McDaniel, a retired teacher from Atlanta, said he decided to spend a few weeks volunteering for Protect Maine Equality after attending his first same-sex wedding this summer.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” said Mr. McDaniel, 57, who said he took out a $5,000 home equity line of credit to finance his trip. “It was a chance to do something really important. I don’t know anyone in Maine, but here I am.”
One of the volunteers working phones at the Stand for Maine offices last Thursday was Bonnie Johnstone of Portland, who said she had decided to help after hearing about the campaign at her Mormon church. But while Mormons played a huge role in California’s same-sex marriage ban – providing reserves of money and volunteers – they appear to be far less involved here, partly because the Mormon Church has a much smaller presence in New England.
The repeal effort has drawn a small number of volunteers from other states, Mr. Mutty said, including a group of students from Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution in Utah.
Stand for Marriage hired the same consulting firm that ran the California campaign against same-sex marriage, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, based in Sacramento, to produce its advertisements. And more than half of its financial support has come from the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative Christian group based in New Jersey that has fought same-sex marriage in other states.
But the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has played the most tangible role in the repeal movement, even urging its parishes to collect donations by passing a second collection plate during Mass.
The Maine Ethics Commission is investigating whether the National Organization for Marriage has violated the state’s campaign finance laws by keeping its donors anonymous. The group has responded with a lawsuit challenging Maine’s financial reporting requirements.
With no big races drawing voters to the polls this year, both sides say that get-out-the-vote efforts will be crucial. Supporters of same-sex marriage are counting on college students, while opponents are focusing on older voters from the state’s more conservative central and northern regions.
“Their voters are going to be weather-dependent, mood-dependent,” Mr. Mutty said. “Our voters tend to vote no matter what.”
Since polls have historically undercounted opponents of same-sex marriage – and none have shown supporters of the law more than a few points ahead, anyway – Protect Maine Equality is taking nothing for granted.
“We have every reason to think this will be a razor-thin election,” said Jesse Connolly, the group’s campaign manager.
Katie Zezima contributed reporting from Portland, Me.