WASHINGTON -- A year ago, Robin and Robb Wirthlin went to Riverside Wesleyan Church in Sacramento to warn Californians about what they feared might happen if gay marriage remained legal in the state.
The Mormon couple from Massachusetts, who also were featured in television advertisements in California, said they were horrified after gay marriage was legalized in their own state. They said their 7-year-old son came home from school and told them his teacher had read "King and King," a fairy tale about two princes who wed.
Now the Wirthlins are carrying the same message on television ads in Maine, where voters will decide the fate of gay marriage in their state on Nov. 3.
The Maine vote is the first in the nation on same-sex marriage since Californians voted to reject gay marriage last November. The vote overruled a decision by the California Supreme Court, which had legalized gay marriage.
So California's long fight over same-sex marriage has moved temporarily to New England, where many of the same players are slugging it out, often using the same strategies that worked so well for opponents in the Golden State.
"They truly are pulling out the exact same playbook," said Marc Solomon, the marriage director of Equality California, a pro-gay marriage group.
Among the Californians involved:
- Opponents in Maine hired Schubert Flint Public Affairs of Sacramento, the firm owned by Frank Schubert that conducted California's campaign against gay marriage.
- A pro-gay marriage group called Californians Against Hate convinced the Maine ethics commission to vote 3-2 to investigate the fundraising procedures of one of its foes, the National Organization for Marriage.
- Equality California has donated at least $25,000 and sent 11 of its staffers to help its counterpart group in Maine.
- Chris Clark, a former Sacramento pastor who's now the pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego, showed up at an anti-gay marriage rally in Augusta to say that what happened in California last year can happen again in Maine.
"Because I'm a pastor, because I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, I saw God's hand directly involved in moving hearts and minds in California and turning out a vote to protect his definition of what marriage is, which is distinctly between one man and one woman," Clark said. "That's not our idea, it's God's idea; he designed it. ... Even though man takes liberties and twists it and distorts it, that was never the original intent."
Fred Karger, the founder of Californians Against Hate, said he thought that forces on the ground were more important.
"I would give more credit to Frank Schubert ... and the Mormon Church and the record-breaking fundraising of $40 million," he said.
Karger said there were two key differences between California and Maine: In Maine, he said, the Roman Catholic Church is part of the opposition, and opponents in Maine aren't nearly as well-funded as they were in California.
Otherwise, he said, "it's almost a carbon copy of what we saw in California, where the right to same-sex marriage was given ... and now the same people are just hell-bent on taking away that right. It's a boilerplate campaign."
One of the fiercest fights is on the airwaves, where television ads allege that gay marriage will be taught in public schools if voters approve it.
In one ad, Robin Wirthlin looks into the camera and says: "After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, our son came home and told us the school taught him that boys can marry other boys." Her husband adds: "We tried to stop public schools from teaching children about gay marriage, but the courts said we had no right to object to pull him out of class."
Karger and others say that schools wouldn't be required to teach anything about gay marriage.
"It's their modus operandi," Karger said. "They just lie in these commercials. They were refuted in California, and they're being refuted in Maine."
Maine's education commissioner tried to quell the controversy by asking for a state investigation to determine whether the claims were true. After Attorney General Janet Mills conducted a legal analysis, she said the gay-marriage law would do nothing to change school curricula.
Marc Mutty, the chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, an anti-gay marriage group, said Mills' decision was no surprise because she backed gay marriage and was using her office for "a transparent political stunt."
The Maine vote is one of only two gay-rights measures that U.S. voters face next month. The other is in Washington state, where voters will decide whether to repeal an expansion of the state's domestic-partners law.
In Maine, polls indicate that the two sides are in a dead heat. Schubert said his firm's polling put the race at 46 percent to 46 percent, and a poll that Public Policy Polling released Tuesday put it at 48 percent to 48 percent.
Clark, whom the advocacy group Family Research Council invited to Maine, said he was counting on God to turn the vote against gay marriage once again. He said that gay marriage opponents had to overcome overwhelming odds when California voters approved Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that made gay marriage illegal.
"It was a monumental task that we faced," he said. "We had virtually everybody against Proposition 8 last year. We had both houses of the California Legislature against us. We had the governor's office against us. We had the judicial branch of California's government against us. We had every major media outlet against us. ... And yet despite all of that, Proposition 8 still passed. So from where I sit, that's a God thing."
Karger is counting more on money to make the difference.
On Tuesday night, he planned to attend a fundraiser to benefit Maine's gay-marriage proponents at the Los Angeles home of Bruce Cohen, the producer of the Hollywood blockbusters "American Beauty" in 1999 and last year's "Milk." Cohen and his partner were married in Los Angeles City Hall in June 2008, in the first wedding performed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Solomon said it was important for gay-marriage backers in California to support their allies in Maine. After all, he said, gay-marriage supporters in Maine contributed to the California campaign last year.
"We are all in this struggle for equality together," Solomon said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2009