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Historic four-state sweep for marriage equality takes place
ELECTIONS '12
by Chuck Colbert
2012-11-14

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Portland Maine made history on election night as voters approved a ballot measure granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. The final vote tally showed Question 1 passing 53 percent to 47 percent.

The measure asked voters, "Do you wish to allow the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"

Adding to the historic night, voters in Maryland approved a same-sex marriage law that the legislature had passed earlier this year 52 percent to 48 percent, while in Minnesota, a constitutional ban went down to defeat, 51.3 percent to 47.6 percent.

A referendum in Washington state that would uphold that state's marriage equality law also won by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, meaning same-sex marriages will take place there, too.

In Maine, supporters were overjoyed at the victory.

"Supporters from Portland to Presque Isle thought that truth and love are more powerful than fear and deception," Matt McTighe, campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, told hundreds of jubilant supporters who gathered in Portland at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

McTighe, who is openly gay, thanked Maine voters who "put family over politics by voting 'Yes' on 1 tonight."

Maine has "proved that voters can change their hearts and minds if we tell them our stories" and "give our fellow citizens a personal connection to people whose lives and families are touched by this issue," said McTighe.

For Portland residents Rodney Mondor and Ray Dumont, a couple, and their son Ethan, passage of Question 1 held special significance. Rodney proposed to Ray amidst the celebration at the Holiday Inn on election night.

"He had to ask," said Dumont. "I am old-fashioned."

Mondor did just that, phoning Dumont's mother to secure her permission before popping the question. Ethan is already preparing for his best-man duties.

End of long losing streak

For LGBT-rights activists and same-sex marriage advocates, the four-state sweep ends a ballot-measure losing streak in 32 states.

Victory in Maine was a reversal of fortunes. Three years ago, Mainers overturned a same-sex marriage law that had been passed by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Governor John Baldacci.

Just as having lead time for conversations with voters and the financial resources for a sustained campaign make all the difference, so taking matters of faith seriously provided an essential ingredient of a winning strategy.

"We had 250,000 conversations with Mainers and expect a turnout of 750,000. Do the math," said McTighe in an interview. "We were everywhere in the state because we had more time to go out and have those conversations."

Mainers United also started running ads in early July and kept them on the air, both television and radio, all the way to Election Day. The ads, said McTighe, were the most "amazing and powerful ads our movement has put together, telling powerful, honest stories from real life Mainers about why marriage matters."

Altogether, social media networking, phone banking, face-to-face conversations, canvassing neighborhoods, and door-knocking enabled Mainers to connect their personal experiences of marriage and family with those of same-sex couples who seek to make the same kind of lifetime commitment.

Mainers United also raised more than $3.4 million for a sustained campaign.

Unlike 2009, marriage equality advocates placed Question 1 on the ballot. And this time, they also included a faith and religion component in the campaign strategy and collaborated with independent faith coalitions.

"The 2009 campaign was basically a secular campaign," said the Revered Marvin Ellison, president of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, one viewing "support for marriage as a basic civil right for all.

"When RCAD showed up [in 2009], the campaign was grateful but did not know what to do with us," Ellison said. "This time around the campaign understood from the beginning that religion would be a decisive factor."

The campaign early on decided to tackle the religious issue.

"While religion would fuel the opposition, it would also provide the energy and perspective to support marriage equality," Ellison explained. "Instead of avoiding religion the campaign wisely had learned to draw upon it and rely on the partnership and support coming from the faith community."

Organization also helped.

"We were much more organized, better staffed, more visible and vocal," too, said Ellison, "encouraging people to do the grassroots conversations and holding educational forums."

A Mainers United coalition partner, RCAD is a statewide, multi-denominational organization of clergy and faith leaders.

The opposition

It was not surprising that opposition came from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Bishop Richard J. Malone released a pastoral letter late in October, urging the faithful "to vote your faith," adding "Any Catholic who supports a redefinition of marriage—or so-called 'same-sex marriage'—is unfaithful to Catholic doctrine."

But Catholics for Marriage Equality had a message of its own, taking out quarter-page and half-page ads in all five of Maine's major newspapers on the two consecutive Sundays before the election.

"Two people of the same sex can and do fall in love, feel deeply the natural human impulse toward lifelong commitment, nurture children steadfastly, and yearn for the societal recognition of their commitment," nearly 200 signatories stated in their advertisements, adding, "This truth does not dishonor marriage, it reveres it."

Catholics for Marriage Equality held conversations among the faithful, too. Members held discussions about "love, commitment, family values," said Cynthia Murray-Beliveau, a board member. "We didn't argue with what the bishop said," she explained. "We came to much more of an understanding with many people of what family values truly are."

Apparently, those efforts paid off. Election results show that in the localities of Augusta, Biddeford, and Lewiston, same-sex marriage gained ground from three years ago. In fact, marriage equality won by more than 1,000 votes in Biddeford, both heavily Catholic and Franco-American.

Catholic University junior Ryan Fecteau, a Biddeford native who logged more than 200 days with the campaign, explained, in speaking with voters, "I stressed the importance of being Catholic and supporting marriage equality were not mutually exclusive."

In the cases of Franco-American voters, "I handed the phone to a volunteer who spoke French," Fecteau said. "She'd be persuading people who would probably not have been persuaded if there had not been a French-speaking person in the room."

Overall, "No matter how you do the math, more than half of Maine's Catholics had to have voted 'Yes,'" said Anne Underwood, co-founder of Catholics for Marriage Equality.

The Chicago-based Rainbow Sash Movement, a pro-LGBT Catholic advocacy organization, closely followed the four-state, ballot-measure sweep.

"I was particularly impressed by the outcome in Maine because the Catholic population [15 percent] was so large," said executive director Joe Murray. "Instead of responding to the local bishop they moved the conversation to place of understanding and compassion."

"I believe Maine is good model for us follow because of our sizable Catholic population in Illinois [nearly 40 percent]," he added. "We need to focus on developing a similar coalition of faith communities that will move beyond the political correctness arguments to a person-to person dialogue."

Matters of faith played out in Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state.

"The win for marriage equality in all four states is a clear faith victory," said Sharon Groves, director of religion and faith program for the Human Rights Campaign.

"The growing edge," added Groves, who worked with all four campaigns, "is how to work with diverse faith communities in culturally competent ways."

HRC was a coalition partner with Mainers United.

The outcomes of the four marriage equality ballot battles will likely influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which is set to decide November 20 if it will hear several cases dealing with anti-gay marriage laws. Two of them are cases brought by Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders—Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management, in which federal judges have ruled the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional.

"What this election shows is that marriage equality is going mainstream," said Lee Swislow, GLAD's executive director. "It has support on both sides of the aisle, across all kinds of demographics, and across regions. For courts to see that widespread support can only be good."

Legislatively, the four ballot measure outcomes may bode well for the advent of same-sex civil marriage in Illinois.

"The clear popular support for marriage equality in all four ballot initiates—on both coasts and in the Midwest—confirmed what we've now known for a while. That there is clear, unequivocal, bipartisan public support for marriage equality," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, the state's oldest and largest organization advocating LGBT equal rights.

"That doesn't mean the battle is over, but it gives us more evidence and stronger momentum in fighting for marriage equality here in Illinois and in other states," he added.

Another statewide advocacy group, The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA), said the four-state sweep signals the right timing for Illinois to pass equal marriage legislation in the General Assembly.

Illinois enacted legislation establishing civil unions, the next best thing to marriage.

"Although civil unions give many of the same benefits as marriage, it is clear that it is a different and discriminatory institution," said Rick Garcia Rick Garcia, director of the Equal Marriage Illinois Project, a program of TCRA.

"Most people don't even know what a civil union is. People know what marriage is, and same-gender couples deserve the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-gender couples," Garcia added. "Separate is not equal."

©Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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