SACO — Religious leaders who support same-sex marriage want to reverse a 2009 loss at the ballot box with convincing faith-based arguments.
The Religious Coalition Against Discrimination gathered in Saco on Tuesday for a conference with southern Maine pastors, rabbis and others. They think most of the voters who swung the election against gay marriage three years ago are “conflicted persons of faith” who may know someone who is gay or lesbian, but don’t think they should be allowed to marry.
“It’s important to have conversations with people of faith,” said the Rev. Marvin Ellison, coalition president. “Particularly those of us who support marriage equality, because of our faith and values, not in spite of it.”
Voters will be asked once again in November whether they want to allow same-sex couples to get married. The fight for swing voters will be key for opponents, who were successful in repealing a state law in 2009 that allowed gay marriage, said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.
He agrees with Ellison that some of the undecided voters are conflicted people of faith. But he believes they are torn because gay activists have made headway with arguments about fairness, not religion.
“Their tactic is making it a fairness issue, which creates that conflict,” he said.
He said Christians believe in justice and fairness, but that he doesn’t believe the Bible can be interpreted in a way that supports gay marriage.
“People want to reinterpret the Bible in a way that is clearly not what it says,” he said. “People are picking and choosing, taking a social stand first and then going to the Bible.”
The Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, a statewide network of clergy supportive of civil rights, gathered in Bangor and Saco this week for day-long conferences on how to talk with people who voted against same-sex marriage last time around. About 90 people attended the conferences over the two days, and on Tuesday, they came to the First Parish Congregational Church in Saco.
The Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, said his interpretation of the Bible is consistent with his support of gay marriage.
“It’s important to see the Bible as something that can support all people,” he said. “The God I read about in the Bible is the God of justice.”
On the other side of the issue, the Rev. Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor in Newport, is serving as campaign chairman for a group of opponents that include the Christian Civic League and the National Organization for Marriage. He disagrees with Ellison’s interpretation that the 53-47 percent loss in 2009 can be attributed to swing voters of faith.
“The whole thing is based on a false premise,” he said. “I don’t think there’s such a huge bloc of conflicted people of faith.”
During the Saco conference, three faith leaders talked about how they’ve handled the issue, whether by giving sermons from the pulpit or by being more politically active. The Rev. Christina Sillari of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland said even within her congregation, there are some who don’t support gay marriage. But she told church members two weeks ago that she won’t sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until same-sex couples are given the same rights.
Then she wondered how to convince a larger group of people to support the issue.
“How do we get to people who don’t even go to church?” she said.
Michael Heath, who is working with Paul Madore to form a political organization to oppose the ballot question, said Ellison and others are “hoping to follow the crowd and the fad of the hour.”
“Even if a thousand false teachers appear on the scene, we will follow God’s law, a law which is eternal and imperishable, a law which is not made today and changed tomorrow, but which has existed from all time,” he said in a prepared statement.
David Farmer, spokesman for Dirigo Family PAC, which is working to pass the ballot question, said the religious coalition that sponsored the conferences this week is one of 35 partners that are supporting the campaign.
Farmer, who was deputy chief of staff for Gov. John Baldacci when he signed gay marriage into law, said supporters believe voters are changing their minds, particularly since other states have approved gay marriage — including New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — since Mainers rejected it in 2009.
They say the shift in Maine is reflected in polls that show 54 percent support for gay marriage.
When it comes to the outcome this time around, Emrich said he doesn’t believe the polls will prove to be accurate. Although gay-marriage supporters have spoken with a lot of Mainers, he said many people don’t want to talk about the issue with a stranger and often politely send them away.
“I don’t think they are conflicted,” he said. “They just don’t want to argue about it.”
Susan Cover — 620-7015