AUGUSTA — Three years after suffering a devastating repeal of Maine's same-sex marriage law, gay rights advocates say they're ready to try again.
A coalition of marriage equality supporters announced Thursday that it had gathered more than 105,000 signatures — more than double the required number — to put the issue on the November ballot. The announcement follows an effort launched last summer in Lewiston.
The referendum question will ask voters if they favor a law allowing marriage for same-sex couples.
Supporters hope to reverse the 2009 decision by voters who repealed Maine's fledgling same-sex marriage law by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent. The margin represented about 16,500 voters.
Proponents on Thursday cited recent polls showing that 54 percent of Mainers support allowing same-sex couples to marry.
"The number of signatures we gathered and the thoughtful conversations we’ve been having with voters tell us that Mainers are eager to speak on this question again,” said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine.
She added, "Many Mainers have changed their minds and want a chance to bring equality and fairness to our state. We are going to give them that chance."
Supporters of the initiative stood alongside cardboard boxes filled with petition signatures. Some of the speakers talked about how they had conversations with previous opponents of same-sex marriage and changed their minds.
The title of the proposed citizen initiative is "An Act to Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom."
The proposed wording submitted to the secretary of state in June 2011 reads: "Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and that protects religious freedom by ensuring that no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?"
The coalition working to pass the initiative includes EqualityMaine, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Maine Women’s Lobby and Engage Maine.
The coalition hopes to broaden its support by forming an advisory committee comprising labor, prominent clergy and Republican leaders.
The Dirigo Family PAC, the coalition’s political action committee, has also been formed.
"We can protect religious liberty and fulfill the constitutional promise of equality under the law for all people by supporting the freedom to marry," Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a prepared statement. "Discrimination, against anyone, runs counter to the Constitution and to the Maine way of life."
Supporters of the initiative know they'll face some tough opposition, including new rhetoric that refers to heterosexual marriage as "natural marriage." It's also likely that advocates of marriage equality and opponents will receive a large influx of outside money to run and organize their respective campaigns.
The National Organization for Marriage in 2009 spent more than $1 million trying to defeat the same-sex law enacted by the Legislature. Advocates for same-sex marriage spent more than $700,000 through 12 political action committees, some from outside Maine.
Same-sex marriage advocates said Thursday that they believe they'll have to raise up to $5 million during the campaign.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which helped lead the 2009 effort to repeal Maine's marriage equality law, said Thursday's announcement was another attempt to redefine marriage.
"After the bitterly divisive campaign of 2009, in which Maine people clearly and decisively voted against changing the meaning of marriage, we’re dismayed that they would bring this issue back for yet another vote," said Brian Souchet, director of the Office for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
Souchet added, "Marriage is an institution that cannot be arbitrarily redefined to accommodate adult desires for public affirmation or state-sponsored benefits."
The secretary of state will now validate the signatures and settle on the ballot question's wording.