Religious groups play major role in campaign to repeal Maine marriage law

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 18, 2009

As they were in last year's Proposition 8 campaign that banned marriage for same-sex couples in California, two prominent religious denominations appear to be playing crucial roles in the current effort to repeal the Maine marriage law.

The stakes are high. According to a poll conducted in April while lawmakers in Augusta debated the bill, voters were evenly divided on the issue: 49.5 percent said they opposed legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians, 47.3 percent said they supported it and 3.3 percent said they didn't know.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Latter Day Saints are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Stand for Marriage Maine, the organization that has submitted more than 100,000 petition signatures. This figure is almost twice the number needed to place a referendum before voters in November that would ask them to repeal the bill lawmakers passed and Gov. John Baldacci signed into law on May 6. Maine is the fourth New England state to extend marriage to same-sex couples. New Hampshire followed suit a few weeks later, while Rhode Island remains the only state in the region that has not.

The People's Veto, part of the Maine constitution, gives citizens the right to vote on, and possibly overturn, any law passed by the state legislature. To get on the ballot, citizens need to file a petition with the Maine secretary of state that has verified signatures amounting to at least 10 percent, or 55,087, of the total votes cast for governor in the most recent election.

To raise funds, referendum proponents created a political action committee, Stand for Marriage Maine, and hired the Michigan-based National Petition Management, Inc., to collect signatures.

A quarterly report filed with the state indicates the PAC raised $343,659.50 during the first two weeks of June alone.

Most of the money raised came from the National Organization for Marriage ($160,000,) the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland ($100,000,) the Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic fraternal organization ($50,000,) and Focus on the Family's Maine Marriage Committee ($31,000.)

Stand for Marriage Maine has hired the California political consulting firm Schubert Flint, which managed Prop. 8, to run the campaign

Advocates working to repeal Prop. 8 have raised red flags about Stand for Marriage Maine's funding sources. Californians Against Hate founder Fred Karger sent a letter to Maine election officials on Aug. 13 that warned of possible money laundering by the two religious denominations. He contends the Mormon Church is NOM's largest funding source.

"It sure looks like they are trying to hide the donors in their latest effort to strip away marriage equality," Karger stated in a news release.

He further contended NOM and the Catholic Diocese of Portland raised funds expressly for the referendum campaign.

NOM's funding is a closely guarded secret, because it creates separate PACs in each state where it has launched campaigns against same-sex marriage laws. Karger has accused NOM of being a "front" for the Mormon Church. He accused the church of creating NOM in 2007 just to qualify Prop. 8 for the California ballot.

"We're expecting to be heavily outspent in this effort, but we're planning on spending the money we need to win this election."

Karger accused the Mormon Church of money laundering in his letter to the executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices. He reported in response to a complaint filed by Californians Against Hate within days of Prop. 8's passage last November, the California Fair Political Practices Commission launched an investigation into the Mormon Church's role in the referendum's campaign. He asked the Maine commission to monitor the relationship between the Mormons and NOM.

Opponents of the November referendum have formed No on 1 Protect Maine Equality to campaign against it.

In a phone interview with EDGE, campaign manager Jesse Connolly would not comment on the money-laundering allegations. Instead, he talked about the "full scale" campaign that includes phone banks, direct mail and going door-to-door to elicit voter support. There are also plans for a TV commercial

The campaign already has a staff of 10 and hundred of volunteers working out of field offices in Portland, Bangor and Lewiston.

"They've been working hard night and day to try to defeat the campaign to repeal same-sex marriage," Connolly said. "We're really excited about the level of enthusiasm."

Connolly did not want to comment publicly on fundraising totals, but he continued.

"We're expecting to be heavily outspent in this effort, but we're planning on spending the money we need to win this election," he said.

Records on the Maine state government's Web site show No on 1 Protect Maine Equality have thus far raised less than half the money referendum proponents have reported. The campaign has raised $143,290 from June 14 through July 4. This figure includes $25,000 from the Human Rights Campaign, which has pledged $125,000. It donated $50,000 last week.

Support for Maine marriage equality is broad and deep, according to Connolly. It includes the Gay Lesbian Straight Educational Network and every LGBT group in the state. Connolly added the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders "has been a phenomenal coalition partner."

"Without them we couldn't have gotten where we are," he said.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Family Planning Association of Maine and other progressive groups are among Support for Maine's backers.

"We're really feeling pretty good," Connolly told EDGE.

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Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].