By Jason McLure
(Reuters) - Proponents of same-sex marriage in Maine have gathered more than enough signatures to ask voters in a November referendum to approve gay nuptials just three years after they banned them.
As the tide of acceptance swells nationwide, gay marriage advocates in gathered more than 85,000 signatures, far more than the requisite 57,277 signatures, Secretary of State Charles Summers said on Thursday.
Opponents have 10 days to challenge the signatures.
Maine's legislature passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, but it was overturned that same year in a statewide referendum, 53 percent to 47 percent. Supporters say polls show they would now win a statewide vote by as much as 10 percent.
"It's going to be challenging," David Farmer, a spokesman with Equality Maine, a gay rights group, told Reuters on Friday.
"We've been working hard since 2009. We've spoken to 40,000 people one-on-one to change their minds and we believe those efforts will pay off," Farmer said.
Opponents of the measure say they are not surprised the measure will come to a vote again given how close the results were in 2009. No U.S. state has ever approved same-sex marriage in a referendum.
"It is unfortunate that citizens will be subjected to this divisive issue again," Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said in a statement.
"The church will remain firm in her constant teaching that marriage is exclusively the union of one woman and one man," Malone said.
The campaign comes as a federal appellate court has upheld a ruling that could force the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a group opposed to same-sex nuptials, to disclose the names of donors who helped it finance a $1.8 million effort to overturn the 2009 law.
"NOM intends to vigorously fight this attempt by same-sex marriage advocates to impose gay marriage in Maine," the group's president, Brian Brown, said in a recent statement.
"Maine voters rejected gay marriage barely more than two years ago. What part of 'no' don't gay marriage advocates understand?"
After recent victories for same-sex marriage proponents in Washington, California and Maryland, Maine will be one of a number of battleground states for national groups supporting and opposing same-sex marriage this year. North Carolina and Minnesota voters will consider constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage this year.
Earlier this year Washington's legislature legalized same-sex marriage effective June 7. Maryland's legislature gave final approval on Thursday to a bill doing the same, and Governor Martin O'Malley has vowed to sign it so it can take effect in January.
Despite this, opponents are likely to be able to gather enough signatures in both states to force a referendum on the issue in November, said Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.
Same-sex couples can currently marry in the District of Columbia, New York, Iowa and four New England states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.
In California, opponents are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decision to uphold a lower court's overturning of a voter-approved gay marriage ban.
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Paul Thomasch)