AUGUSTA, Maine — Gay rights activists in Maine, the only New England state that doesn't allow gay marriage or civil unions, moved Thursday toward forcing a second statewide vote on the marriage question, and their opponents say they'll be ready for a fight.
EqualityMaine, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Women's Lobby and their supporters said Mainers have had a change of heart since the last vote in 2009. They turned over dozens of cartons of petitions signed by 105,000 voters, far more than the 57,277 needed to force a referendum in November. The petitions must be certified by election officials.
After the Legislature approved gay marriage three years ago, opponents forced the question before voters, who overturned the law 53 percent to 47 percent. If Mainers approve gay marriage this time around, the state would be the first to do so by a popular vote.
Advocates said Thursday that their polling and observations convince them voters are ready to do just that in a campaign that could cost $4 million to $5 million.
"Many people have changed their minds," Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, said at a news conference at the State House.
Smith cited the results of a poll in December by Goodwin Simon Strategic research that showed 54 percent of 800 likely voters favored allowing same-sex couples to marry in Maine.
"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," she said.
One of those eager to vote again is the Rev. Michael Gray, a Methodist pastor in Old Orchard Beach.
Gray said he was a longtime conservative who changed his mind "after study, prayer and patience."
After an effort to reach out and meet personally with voters, gay rights advocates kicked off a new petition drive in August. By November, they had collected more than 100,000 signatures, but supporters wanted to wait to make sure the timing was right before deciding whether to deliver those petitions to the secretary of state.
Opponents said they will be ready for the renewed referendum fight with bolstered forces.
"I expect it will be the same coalition except only broader that it was before," said the Rev. Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor in Plymouth who helped lead the last campaign to defeat gay marriage and plans to be active this time, too.
The addition of the Family Policy Council, a nonprofit also known as the Christian Civic League of Maine, "will be a huge difference," he said.
"I don't think the people in Maine want to do it again," Emrich said. "But here it is, and we'll do what we've got to do."
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which opposes gay marriage, expressed disappointment that gay marriage supporters chose to seek another vote so soon after the 2009 referendum.
"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," Brian Souchet, a spokesman for the diocese, said in a statement.
To get gay marriage on the 2012 ballot, organizers needed to collect signatures by Jan. 30. If those are certified, the proposal first goes to the Republican-controlled Legislature for an up-or-down vote. If the Legislature approves the proposal and the governor signs it, then gay marriage will be legalized. If the Legislature doesn't approve it or the governor doesn't sign a bill, as expected, the question goes to voters.
In New England, gay marriage is recognized in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont, and civil unions for same-sex couples are allowed in Rhode Island. Other states that allow gay marriage are New York and Iowa, along with Washington, D.C.
In the six states where gay-marriage is allowed, the laws all came through either through court orders or legislative votes, not through a statewide popular vote.
Elsewhere, bills to legalize same-sex marriage have good chances of passage this year in legislatures in Maryland, New Jersey and Washington. Proposed amendments for constitutional bans on gay marriage will be on the ballots in North Carolina on May 8 and in Minnesota on Nov. 6.
In Maine, the state ACLU leader said same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, guaranteed by the religious-freedom and equal-protection amendments, said the group's executive director, Shenna Bellows.