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Maine voters overturn state’s new same-sex marriage law

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / November 4, 2009

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PORTLAND, Maine - Maine voters overturned the state’s same-sex marriage law yesterday, delivering a potentially crushing blow to gay-rights advocates after a year when their cause seemed to be gaining momentum with legislative and legal victories in four states.

As the ballot counting continued well past midnight, the margin continued to grow - with 52.7 percent of voters in favor of the repeal - and the Associated Press called the contest in favor of gay-marriage foes shortly before 1 a.m.

The “people’s veto’’ came six months after Maine’s law was approved, and one year after California voters rejected gay marriage by a similar margin.

“This is an amazing moment. It’s beyond words,’’ said Mary Conroy, spokeswoman for Yes on 1/Stand for Marriage Maine, the organization leading the fight against same-sex marriage in Maine. “I feel energized, overcome, overjoyed for the family and the people of Maine.

“Clearly, this tonight is the people of Maine speaking.’’

Gay marriage advocates, who gathered in a ballroom at a Portland hotel, spent much of the evening dancing and cheering, but grew more subdued as the hours passed and the votes favoring a repeal of the gay-marriage law pulled steadily ahead.

No on 1 campaign manager Jesse Connolly vowed to continue counting votes into this morning, but even he seemed to concede that they had lost this battle.

“We’re not short timers. We’re in for the long haul,’’ he said early this morning. “We will regroup. This is about love and commitment and family, and so we’ll stay the course. And I ask you to stay the course with us.’’

With the news, supporters of gay marriage dissolved into tears. One couple, Susan McCray and Yvette Pratt, had married in Massachusetts, but every time they crossed the border back into Maine, where they live, their marriage was no longer recognized.

“We thought we had it,’’ McCray said, holding Pratt’s hand. As they walked out, a woman called to them, “It’s not over.’’

Gay marriage supporters, who had cast the question as a classic civil rights struggle, had hoped that Maine voters would become the first in the country to sanction gay marriage.

It is currently legal in five states, but only by virtue of politicians or judges.

Opponents hoped to reaffirm marriage as a union between one man and woman after a year that saw four states, including Maine, approve same-sex marriage through the courts or in the state legislature. Every time same-sex marriage has been placed on the ballot, it has been defeated. They focused much of their argument on concerns that children would begin learning about gay marriage and gay relationships in school.

The well-financed race attracted national headlines, millions of dollars in contributions for both sides, and pitted Maine’s more liberal southern tier against its more conservative outer reaches. The vote, long expected to be very close, attracted a higher-than-expected turnout, with at least 53 percent of voters going to the polls, despite the absence of any other significant statewide contests.

In May, Governor John E. Baldacci became the nation’s first governor to sign a same-sex marriage into law without previous action by the courts. But the opposition was so swift that not a single couple exchanged vows.

Instead, with the launching of a referendum drive, Maine became the latest battleground of a fight that has been won and lost in other states, as gays and lesbians have lobbied for the same rights as heterosexual couples. Each side estimates it has raised about $4 million for their cause.

Yesterday, keenly aware of the national spotlight, volunteers frantically worked the phones to get voters to the polls from Madawaska, at the northern tip of Maine, to Eliot in the south.

Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, in 2003, under a landmark decision issued by the state’s high court. Connecticut courts legalized gay marriage there in 2008, and then Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine followed earlier this year, either through legislation or court rulings. Same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California, until 52 percent of voters approved a constitutional ban last year.

Maine has struggled with gay rights in the past. In 1998 and in 2000, lawmakers voted to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians but voters narrowly struck down those laws. The law was ultimately approved in 2005.

Conroy said most of the Stand for Marriage supporters are ordinary families who are worried that children will read stories about same-sex couples in schools, that teenagers will be encouraged to experiment with their sexuality, and that same-sex marriage will become widespread. She said that gays and lesbians have won antidiscrimination protections and should “leave marriage alone.’’

“No one’s antigay,’’ she said. “It’s just whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. . . . Not so fast.’’

Among the Stand for Marriage supporters were Scott York, 31, a carpenter who voted at the Portland Exposition Building. He said he wasn’t particularly passionate about the issue until he worried, because of advertisements, that same-sex marriage could be taught in schools.

“It’s not my style,’’ said York, who voted to overturn the law. “I just don’t feel it should be taught.’’

Gay and lesbian families say the Stand for Marriage ads recall the discrimination of the civil rights era. Maine state Senator Lawrence Bliss, a father of three who married his partner in California when same-sex marriage was fleetingly legal, said he believed that Maine’s live-and-let-live values would prevail.

“I feel confident,’’ he said. “I know that in the final analysis, people in Maine understand that fair is fair, equal is equal.’’

Dozens of Massachusetts residents poured into Maine in recent days to share their stories of how same-sex marriage has unfolded and what Maine might expect if voters preserved it.

Holly Gunner, a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said same-sex marriage has become “ordinary’’ in Massachusetts.