AUGUSTA — A new pro gay-marriage television advertisement will begin airing today in key national markets as the country’s largest gay and lesbian rights organization looks to build on momentum gained in Maine and two other states that approved gay marriage at the ballot box earlier this month.

The Human Rights Campaign hired the Portland-based company Chi/Donahoe+Cole/Duffey to produce the 30-second spot that features the voice of actor Morgan Freeman, and depicts images of civil rights battles, including women’s suffrage and racial equality.

“It’s really to capture the momentum of the incredible victories we had at the ballot box a few weeks ago,” said HRC spokesman Fred Sainz. “As Morgan Freeman says, there’s still a journey ahead of us.”

The advertisement will air in Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles, and is designed to influence decision makers, not voters, he said. While the group wants to build on success in Maine, Maryland and Washington state, all of which approved gay-marriage ballot questions Nov. 6, it also casts an eye to the future, with the U.S. Supreme Court set to begin consideration of a challenge to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and other gay-marriage related lawsuits on Friday.

Also, state legislative battles are expected early next year in Rhode Island, Delaware, Illinois, Hawaii and Minnesota, where voters rejected a state-level constitutional ban on gay marriage earlier this month.

While the Human Rights Campaign is touting recent success, it’s clear the movement has a long way to go. Even with the votes earlier this month, only nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. State constitutional bans are in place in 31 states and the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents all gay couples — even those who live in states that allow same-sex marriage — from receiving any federal benefits granted to opposite-sex married couples.

And opponents say they plan to renew efforts to fight the expansion of gay marriage and that they will keep an eye on how things play out in Maine after gay couples begin marrying, which is likely to be sometime in January.

The day after the Nov. 6 election, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, sent out a statement calling the results a “setback,” but not a true reflection of where voters stand on the issue.

“Our opponents and some in the media will attempt to portray the election results as a changing point in how Americans view gay marriage, but that is not the case,” he said. “Americans remain strongly in favor of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The election results reflect the political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states.”

Nationwide, supporters of gay marriage raised $33 million while opponents raised $11 million, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Mainers United for Marriage, the primary group supporting same-sex marriage in Maine, raised $4.3 million and Protect Marriage Maine, the lead opponents, raised $1.4 million, according to campaign finance reports filed in late October.

Brown, who did not return calls to his cellphone last week, also indicated in the statement that his group will remain active on the issue.

“Marriage is a true and just cause, and we will never abandon the field of battle just because we experienced a setback,” he said. “There is much work to do, and we begin that process now.”

Gay-rights advocates are claiming momentum now that the first states have approved gay marriage by popular vote. Until just a few weeks ago, voters had never approved gay marriage and had in fact put in place constitutional amendments to ban it.

Before Nov. 6, only state legislatures or courts approved it. The outcome was particularly poignant in Maine, where voters in 2009 rejected gay marriage by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin, and then reversed themselves by the same margin this year.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League in Maine, said they are instructing churches to make sure their bylaws protect them from having to perform same-sex marriages if they oppose it, and that they will consider whether it’s necessary to introduce legislation to further protect notaries and town clerks who will be required to serve gay couples seeking to get married.

The Maine law exempts churches and other religious institutions from being required to perform same-sex weddings, but opponents argue that it does not protect notaries public and business owners from lawsuits if they refuse to provide services to gay couples. Existing Maine law approved by voters in 2005 does not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“I think the most immediate plan is us looking to see what the ramifications are with regard to individuals and churches that find themselves in conflict,” Conley said.

In the days immediately following the vote, there were also emails that suggested opponents might consider gathering signatures to call for a repeal of the new gay-marriage law.

“There’s been a lot of talk about whether to offer another challenge,” he said. “There’s no way to answer that question in terms of ‘when’ or ‘if.'”

Conley said the issue passed in Maine because of highly successful efforts by Democrats to get voters to the polls, and he credited gay rights supporters for targeting a presidential election for the vote.

“Everybody greatly underestimated how energized the Democratic base would be,” he said. “We got our hats handed to us. We do not consider this an indictment against conservative values, but we need to look at how to effectively mobilize voters. They did an incredible job.”

Yet gay rights supporters say they sense a change in attitude nationwide that goes beyond Democratic voter turnout. It started in May, with President Barack Obama becoming the first president to endorse gay marriage, and continued to November with his re-election, Sainz said. Voters in Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and Iowa voters re-elected a state supreme court justice who helped bring gay marriage to that state.

Sainz also noted that more members of Congress support gay rights than ever, including U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King of Maine, who said early in his campaign that he supported gay marriage.

“It’s folly for opponents of marriage equality to believe this was an isolated incident in which Americans made a wrong decision,” he said. “It’s spin on their part. The truth is Americans rallied to the side of equality.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643
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