LEWISTON, Maine — Gay marriage supporters began laying the groundwork Thursday for another referendum on the issue, hoping to build on momentum from New York which last week became the sixth state to allow same-sex marriage. Critics said the divisive issue was already settled by a statewide vote and that there's no need for another referendum.
Advocates of same-sex marriage say many Mainers have changed their minds since state voters overturned a same-sex marriage law in 2009. They said Thursday they're filing paperwork with election officials to start the process of gathering 57,000 signatures to put the matter on the November 2012 ballot.
Matt McTighe from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders says polls show 53 percent of Mainers now support gay marriage. In 2009, gay marriage was rejected by the same margin.
"We believe there's strong support for marriage in Maine. We believe that all families deserve the right to marry. The longer we wait, the longer we delay this right of loving and committed couples to marry," McTighe said.
Thursday's announcement came one day after Rhode Island lawmakers approved civil unions for gay couples. If Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee signs the bill into law, as expected, then Maine would become the only state in New England that doesn't allow either gay marriage or civil unions.
Marc Mutty, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which opposes same-sex marriage, said he was disappointed to learn of the possibility of another referendum.
"The people of Maine rejected same-sex marriage in November of 2009 and should not be put through what will likely be another divisive drawn-out campaign. The people of this country have rejected same-sex marriage in all cases in which it has been put on the ballot. There's no reason why we should expect a different outcome this time," he said.
Gay marriage supporters say the Maine effort has been under way for some time.
Betsy Smith of EqualityMaine said Maine activists are focused on having 40,000 conversations with voters to bring them over to their side.
"We are going voter by voter," said Smith, adding that 15,000 of those conversations have been held, in targeted areas of the state.
The announcement was made in Lewistown, Maine's second-largest city, which rejected gay marriage in 2009. Smith said it is one of the communities that gay marriage supporters need to win to succeed at the ballot box in 2012.
"We've been having conversations with Mainers for the last year and a half, and what we know is that Mainers are changing their minds on this issue," Smith said. "We began working for marriage equality in 2009. We want to finish that job."
Smith and McTighe said gay marriage supporters will decide after gathering signatures and completing one-on-one conversations whether to go to the ballot. The signatures would have to be submitted in January and then validated to put the measure on the ballot in the November 2012 presidential election.
An Oregon same-sex marriage proposal may also appear on the ballot. A gay-rights advocacy group in Oregon aired television ads in the spring featuring same-sex couples talking about love and their relationships. The group says it will make a decision this fall about whether to pursue a ballot measure legalizing gay marriage.
The Rev. Bob Emrich, chairman of the board of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said gay marriage advocates in Maine had momentum and support from the Legislature and governor in 2009 and still lost the popular vote. He said there's no evidence that their one-on-one conversations have changed many minds.
"They've been going around talking with people who already agree with them. They go and knock on people's doors. There's intimidation there. I think people are politely avoiding a debate. They take that as an agreement. A one-sided conversation doesn't change too many minds," he said.
Joining EqualityMaine and GLAD at a news conference Thursday outside City Hall were Lewiston Mayor Laurent F. Gilbert and the Rev. Michael Gray, a United Methodist pastor in Old Orchard Beach.
Gray, standing next to his wife and daughter, said that for most of his life he viewed himself as a conservative with a traditional view of marriage. But he said that after meeting gay and lesbian singles and couples that he now believes "gay folks are no different from me in all the ways that truly matter."
"I realize now that the love and commitment that they have can be the same as that of mine and my wife's. I not only support their right to have the freedom to marry if they're lucky enough to find someone they love, I also think it's imperative that the state treat and protect these relationships, and the families that they create, in the same way my family is treated and protected," he said.
Michelle Mondor, a Roman Catholic mother from Biddeford, described how she came to accept that her son's committed relationship with a partner of more than 11 years is just as strong as her own relationship with her husband.
She wants to see a marriage for them, as well as their adopted 11-year-pld son.
"He needs the protection and stability of knowing his two dads are married, and I pray that the people of Maine make that a reality so our entire family can join them in celebrating their love at their wedding."
Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, and Jonathan Cooper in Salem, Ore., contributed to this report.