PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Scores of Maine churches will pass the collection plate a second time at Sunday services on Father's Day to kick off a fundraising campaign for the lead opposition group to November's ballot question asking voters to legalize same-sex marriages.
Between 150 and 200 churches are expected to raise money for the Protect Marriage Maine political action committee, said Carroll Conley Jr., executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine evangelical organization and a member of the PAC. Conley is also trying to drum up support for the Maine campaign from religious leaders from around the country.
It's unusual, but not unheard of, for churches to take up collections for political causes. Maine's Catholic diocese says it raised about $80,000 with a designated collection in 2009 in its effort to overturn Maine's same-sex marriage law, which was passed by the Legislature that year and later rejected by voters. The Catholic church isn't actively campaigning this time, instead focusing on teaching parishioners about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman Father's Day, June 17, seemed an appropriate time to kick off this year's fundraising campaign because of the day's focus on family, Conley said. Additional collection-plate offerings at churches are expected in the months ahead.
"The messaging we're using is that those who are seeking to redefine marriage in Maine believe there's no difference between moms and dads," Conley told The Associated Press. "We believe those differences are relevant. We don't think the differences in the genders are societally imposed roles, and we believe that children benefit when they're in that ideal environment where there's a mom and dad."
Protect Marriage Maine has been in contact with about 800 churches across the state and expects 150 to 200 to participate in the Father's Day collections, Conley said. They include Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Church of God, Wesleyan, Evangelical Free, Advent Christian and other denominations.
While many churches are joining the campaign against the referendum, others of various denominations are working to support the ballot measure.
Some churches have hosted phone banks where congregation members have made calls in favor of the referendum, said the Rev. Sue Gabrielson, the minister at the Sanford Unitarian Universalist Church. Other churches have held educational forums and training sessions on door-to-door canvassing.
The referendum, she said, is about inclusion, a "loving God" and being nonjudgmental and compassionate.
"What we want is for people to know that this is a religious issue," she said.
Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who created an international uproar when he became the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican church in 2003, is coming to Maine in early June on behalf of the campaign in support of gay marriage. He will appear at three screenings of the film "Love Free or Die," which depicts his life, in Portland, Lewiston and Ellsworth.
Churches in Maine and elsewhere have raised money from parishioners for political campaigns in the past on issues including gay rights, doctor-assisted suicide, abortion and gambling.
Federal law prohibits churches and other 501(c) (3) charitable organizations from supporting or opposing candidates running for office, either through financial contributions or endorsements, said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a Washington advocacy group that supports separation of church and state.
"But they can, with near impunity, support issues and causes, including same-sex marriage referenda," Walker said.
Supporters of Maine's ballot question have said they expect to raise $5 million or more for their campaign. Opponents have said they expect to raise far less, but collection plate offerings will go a long way toward helping fund the campaign, Conley said.
Conley has been in Washington, D.C., this week at a pastors conference organized by the conservative Family Research Council. There, he met with other gay marriage opponents from Minnesota, Washington and Maryland, where same-sex marriage ballot initiatives are being debated.
Minnesota will decide in November whether a ban on gay marriage should be part of the state constitution. Maryland and Washington are expected to have ballot measures seeking to overturn same-sex marriage laws that were recently passed by their legislatures.
Conley's also seeking endorsements from well-known pastors who might be willing to record video and audio clips that can be played at churches taking part in Maine's collection-plate drive, he said. Those clips would also be sent to the state's Christian radio stations as public service announcements.
Conley said he realized churches should play a central role in the Maine campaign after being in North Carolina earlier this month when voters approved an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage may only be a
union of a man and a woman.
"I was impressed with the coordination I saw among the faith community in North Carolina," he said.