Published 3:36 pm on September 01, 2009
Washington domestic partnership law heading to November showdown
By Peter Elliott
Washington is shaping up to be another key battleground in the ongoing state-by-state debate over gay rights and gay marriage.
Opponents of the state’s domestic partnership law have successfully gathered enough signatures to challenge it in a referendum come Nov. 3rd. If a pending legal challenge to Referendum 71 fall short, Washington will join Maine is a bi-coastal showdown over expanded rights for gays and lesbians.
A campaign in Maine is already in full swing to overturn a law passed by the state legislature earlier this year legalizing gay marriage. If the effort fails, Maine will become the first state in the country to have gay marriage directly approved by voters.
In Washington, gay marriage is not specifically mentioned in the domestic partnership law. It is, however, a probable final stepping stone for gay rights groups to make a final push to legalize gay marriage.
Two legal issues have yet to be resolved as the issue moves forward toward Election Day.
Gay rights activists have filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court challenging the validity of some of the signatures. King County is where Seattle is located. The suit may be ruled on as early as Wednesday.
The suit is significant because 121,617 signatures were gathered for the petition. That is a slim 1,040 margin above the 120,577 required by the Secretary of State.
Gary Randall is convinced the suit has no merit. Randall is leader with the Faith and Freedom Network, which along with the organization Protect Marriage Washington, led the charge to gather the necessary signatures.
“This was a very grass-roots effort from the beginning,” Randall said, “I don’t know how you could possibly prove any of the allegations that are being made.”
The allegations stem from challenges that some petition signatories put their names on the petition and then registered to vote after the fact. Randall said that was not the case and that it would be impossible to prove since Washington has an open voter registration system which allows residents to register the day before an election or signing a petition. The dates of the registrations are not included on the petition, Randall said.
Another challenge within the suit stems from all the pages of each individual petition not being signed by the person who collected the signatures, Randall said. He contended this is not necessary as long as the appropriate legal language is included on the back of each petition page, which he said it is.
“We have been in contact with both the Attorney General and the Secretary of State’s office and they have assured us there is a long precedent in this being an acceptable way of handling the petitions,” Randall said.
On Thursday, a U.S. District Court judge will hear a challenge brought by partnership opponents asking the names of signatories be redacted from the petition. Randall said this is because of the fear of reprisals and threats already made against opponents. He added it continues a pattern established by some gay rights activists in California who spoke and acted out against proponents of Proposition 8, which passed last November banning gay marriage.
“What we have learned unfortunately from California is that gay activists can and do become violent when opposed, and that kind of disorder in a civil society has a chilling effect,” he said. “We’ve already had death threats directed at a couple of us even before the referendum was approved. If the names of the people who have signed become public, that’s disappointing because churches will likely be picketed and who knows what beyond that.”
Randall said opposition to the domestic partnership law is based on cultural, theological and fiscal grounds.
From a cultural standpoint, he said public statements by Seattle State Senator Ed Murray and other pro-gay rights legislators have indicated for years that passing domestic partnership legislation was a means to an end of having gay marriage legalized in Washington.
“If the referendum is defeated, what you will likely see is a lawsuit saying the state laws on marriage are discriminatory, and with this domestic partnership law, they will have a powerful argument for their case,” he said.
The domestic partnership law extends health benefits to gay partners of government employees and unmarried beneficiaries of people 62 years old and up.
Randall said his group’s aim is not to punish people in terms of limiting health benefits, but rather to limit the scope of marriage.
“This is not an angry group of people,” Randall said. “I have no objection to people living their lives however they want, even if I may not agree with it. While I respect that right, I do not believe there is a right to redefine the definition of marriage.”
He added that the traditional view of marriage illustrated in the Bible indicates “that marriage is to be honored and worthy of defending, which we are doing.” Financial problems with the state’s management of Medicare and health care benefits make the partnership law a severe financial risk, he said.
Randall said financial coffers, which were largely drained by the R-71 campaign, will need to be replenished. Traditional marriage advocates in Maine have tapped into national fundraising arms of the National Organization of Marriage and Focus on the Family for their campaign. When asked if he thinks Washington’s partnership foes can tap into similar resources, Randall said, “We would hope so.”
Washington has a strong Democratic majority in both houses of its Legislature, a Democratic governor and regularly is a “blue state” in Presidential politics. Still, Randall said a poll commissioned earlier this year said gay marriage was rejected by a 50-43 margin in a sampling. The key will be to frame the referendum as a vote directly impacting the future of gay marriage in the state.
“I think we can win if we do a good job making our case and stating the principles we stand for,” Randall said.
While there is a chance the referendum could be derailed in court, pro-domestic partnership forces already have active phone banking and advocacy in place gearing up for an election.
Anne Levinson, chairwoman of Washington Families Standing Together (WFST) said in a statement that, “we need to move full speed ahead with the campaign.”
Josh Friedes, campaign director for WFST, said the fact that ballots can go out in the mail as early as mid-October leaves time for a short and intense campaign.
“We only have six weeks to be able to share what this law means for senior couple and gay and lesbian couples and their basic rights,” he said.
That process will include a focus on how the law impacts public service and safety employees.
“We want people to understand what this means is that if a firefighter is killed in the line of duty serving the community, his partner should be able to collect death benefits,” he said. “We are also pleased that a large number of senior groups have come out in favor of the law. For example, this protects seniors who may want to marry after a spouse has died but can’t because they are going to lose the pension benefits built up over a lifetime with another person.”
He also disputed Randall’s claim that the law is merely accelerating the process of approving gay marriage in Washington.
“It is true that supporters of marriage equality have made it clear over a long period of time that that is a goal, but that is not what this bill is about,” he said. “This bill is an extension of basic rights to all Washingtonians. Iowa is an example of a state that has marriage equality without ever having a domestic partnership law.
“What is does do, whether the referendum passes or not, is continues the conversation about the rights the people of Washington want to have.”
Faith and Freedom Network: http://www.faithandfreedom.us
Washington Families Standing Together: http://approvereferendum71.org/
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