At stake in Maine vote: a potential first for gay marriage

No state has ever approved gay marriage at the polls. Gay marriage advocates and opponents have poured into Maine in an effort to either break the streak or keep it intact Tuesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Supporters turn out for a gay-rights rally the day before election day in Portland, Maine, on Monday.
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Maine residents will have their say Tuesday in the nationwide debate over gay marriage. Voters there will decide whether or not to uphold a law that was signed in May allowing gay couples to legally wed. If they accept the measure, Maine would become to first state to approve gay marriage at the polls.

Public-opinion surveys show that voters remain evenly split on the eve of the referendum, which has turned Maine into the latest battleground in the fight over marriage.

Millions of dollars have been spent by both sides in high-profile campaigns that have attracted hundreds of out-of-state volunteers and millions of dollars in contributions for both sides of the issue.

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“Maine is absolutely critical,” says Paul Hogarth, who came to Maine from California to help organize Drive for Equality, a group that has attracted some 200 out-of-state volunteers to canvass in favor of the state’s gay marriage law.

“In many ways, the opposition is taking this very seriously because they view this as an opportunity to blunt our momentum,” says Mr. Hogarth.

Split momentum

Since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004, Connecticut, Vermont, and Iowa have followed suit.

New Jersey and New York appear likely to address the gay marriage question in the relatively near future, and on Tuesday voters in Washington State will decide whether to give domestic partners the same rights as married couples.

Yet as gay-marriage rights advance, voters have rejected same-sex marriage whenever given the option. In California, a state Supreme Court decision extended marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, but it was eventually overturned at the polls in November 2008. Now that vote is being challenged in federal court.

In Maine, opponents of the state’s same-sex marriage law are hoping for a repeat of California.

California comes to Maine

Brian Brown, executive director for the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage, was involved in the campaign to overturn gay marriage in California. In Maine, he is working with Stand for Marriage Maine, which has the same goal.

“The arguments that were so effective in California are already effective in Maine,” says Mr. Brown, whose organization has contributed about $1.8 million to the Maine effort. In total, according to the Associated Press, Stand for Marriage has raised $2.5 million.

Brown says that the campaign against gay marriage focuses on the consequences that accompany the law, such as how gay marriage is addressed in schools. “If you redefine marriage, you redefine how it’s taught in school,” he says.

Focusing on families

His opponent in favor of gay marriage, the Protect Maine Equality campaign, has raised more than $4 million in its effort to uphold the state’s gay-marriage law.

From the beginning of the campaign, gay marriage proponents have not shied away from addressing the issue of children, says Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

“We’re not going to hide the fact that gay and lesbian couples have kids,” says Ms. Bellows. In fact, some of the first ads from Protect Maine Equality showed gay and lesbian couples with their children.

An unlikely but popular advocate for gay marriage in Maine has been World War II veteran Philip Spooner. A YouTube video of Mr. Spooner, who says his support for the state law is partially inspired by his one gay son, has been viewed 587,000 times.

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