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Gay-nuptial foes hire Calif. consulting firm

Petition efforts raise eyebrows

Opponents of gay marriage, while looking ahead to a weekend of signature-gathering, have hired a California political consulting firm that's a veteran of conservative causes. The effort would be to help collect petitions to get a proposed ban on same-sex marriage on the 2008 ballot.

Arno Political Consultants, based in the Sacramento area, is lending strategic guidance and on-the-ground help to a coalition of groups opposed to gay marriage called voteonmarriage.org. The coalition must collect almost 66,000 signatures by Thanksgiving to put the ballot question to the state's voters.

Arno has worked on a variety of campaigns across the country, including a citizens' petition in California backing overhauls proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a similar amendment in Ohio. Arno has also worked on an effort by the Republican National Committee to register GOP voters in Florida.

A new poll, meanwhile, indicates that opponents of gay marriage could be facing an uphill fight if they succeed in getting the question on the ballot. The University of Massachusetts-Lowell poll suggests that 56 percent of registered voters in the state oppose the initiative and that 40 percent support it. The poll of 400 voters, taken Sept. 19-27, has a margin of error of 5 percent.

The Catholic Church is a leading sponsor of the ballot initiative, but the poll suggests a near split among Catholics. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed who identified themselves as Catholic support the petition, while 46 percent oppose it.

Lisa Barstow, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Marriage and Family, which is coordinating the petition drive, dismissed the poll as a ''snapshot in time" and said voters, particularly at this early stage, can get confused by the petition language.

''We happen to believe that when people get into the privacy of the voting booth, things will change," Barstow said.

Opponents of gay marriage plan to gather thousands of signatures this weekend at ''Protect Marriage Sunday," a coordinated effort by the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant congregations, and others to get as many names they can Sunday at worship services throughout Massachusetts.

The petition drive is in full force in places, and some Massachusetts residents are reporting what they're calling deceptive practices by signature-gatherers.

Lara Szent-Gyorgyi said she was returning items Saturday at Wal-Mart in Natick when she noticed someone outside the store gathering names for a separate ballot initiative, one that would allow the sale of wine in supermarkets. Szent-Gyorgyi said she had signed, and had then been asked to sign a few other petitions, but she said she had not been told what they were for. One was the gay-marriage petition.

''It was very misleading," said Szent-Gyorgyi, of Brookline, who contacted The Boston Globe.

Risa Sacks said she experienced something similar at a Price Chopper supermarket in Worcester on Wednesday.

She said that when she signed the wine initiative, a woman who was collecting names told her that she needed to sign somewhere else, too. Only when she pressed, Sacks said, was she told that the second signature was for the gay-marriage question.

''I was so upset about the whole thing," said Sacks, a freelance researcher who lives in Worcester. ''It was completely egregious. It was completely misleading. It was completely incorrect."

The pro-gay marriage group MassEquality sent out an e-mail message Wednesday asking for reports of such irregularities.

Marc Solomon, the group's political director, said yesterday that they have received more than 40 complaints so far.

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com..

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