OLYMPIA – Calling themselves a “broad-based coalition,” same-sex marriage foes want to overturn a new law granting gay and lesbian couples most of the rights of spouses, short of marriage.
“This is both a referendum campaign and a statement of unity within the faith community,” the Faith and Freedom Network announced shortly after filing Referendum 71 this week.
But there are deep divisions among religious conservatives over the move, with many prominent Christian leaders worried that it could backfire.
“I would be very disappointed to be dragged into an effort that is unlikely to succeed and very likely to ultimately be counterproductive,” wrote the Rev. Joe Fuiten, of Bothell, citing recent polling. “Doing the strategically wrong thing, even in a good cause, is not wisdom.”
Fuiten – who remains opposed to domestic partnerships and same-sex marriage – this week made public excerpts of discussions he’d had with dozens of prominent Christian leaders over the referendum. The lengthy memo offers a peek into the sort of political calculus that normally takes place only behind closed doors.
“The fact is that pastors across the state do not want to do this,” he said in an interview. It would be far better, he said, to get organized for a ballot measure next year that focuses on same-sex marriage.
Referendum 71 supporters say they’re undeterred.
“We believe we will succeed,” said Faith and Freedom’s president, Gary Randall. The coalition includes the Washington Values Alliance, the Christian Coalition, and several state lawmakers, including Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead.
Washington’s new law affects domestic partners, giving them virtually all the rights and responsibilities of spouses. But it does not allow same-sex couples to marry.
To Randall, that’s a distinction without a difference. Once the bill is signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire later this month, Randall and some lawmakers predict a quick trip to the courthouse, where attorneys will argue that it’s discriminatory not to let same-sex couples marry.
“It is everything but marriage without the word, but it elevates the homosexual relationship to the same level as marriage,” he said. “There’s no legal difference. All it is is the name.”
And it’s better to try and head that off now, he argues, than to try to take away couples’ marriage certificates after the fact.
Proponents of same-sex marriage say time is on their side. People are increasingly accepting of gay and lesbian neighbors, co-workers and family members, they say. Several of Washington’s openly gay lawmakers have said they view same-sex marriage as a matter of when, not if. And they predict the referendum will fail.
“I’m confident that Washington voters support gay and lesbian families who work hard, play by the rules, and pay taxes just like all other families,” Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said.
Randall and Fuiten both argue that public support stops at the word “marriage.” Both are determined to head off same-sex marriage if they can. Their disagreements seem largely tactical.
Fuiten’s memo focuses mostly on campaign strategy. The public – and potential campaign backers – are focused mainly on the economy, he said. Polling suggests that most voters are OK with domestic partnerships. “We’ve lost the domestic partnership battle,” Fuiten said. “… We just have to accept that reality.”
And if the referendum fails, he said, lawmakers are likely to interpret that as public support for legalizing same-sex marriage. “I know that some will say I just lack faith,” he wrote. “It might be. I don’t have any interest in being another General Custer.”
Instead of a referendum to overturn state legislation, he said, he’d rather see a citizens’ initiative next year “to make the case on our terms” against same-sex marriage.
All sides agree that a critical factor is how the question is framed. Even with wording chosen by gay marriage foes, polling suggests a difficult battle this year. Faith and Freedom recently paid to add a question to independent pollster Stuart Elway’s survey.
“Do you believe that homosexuals should have the right to be legally married?” voters were asked. Fifty percent said no, 43 percent said yes.
But change the words to “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage,” Elway said, and people are more supportive.
Social conservatives are determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2006, when a petition drive by initiative promoter Tim Eyman and church groups failed to get enough signatures.
It was a deep disappointment for social conservatives. They’d sent petitions to more than 5,000 churches across the state, hoping to overturn a law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. (Eyman’s showman tactics also rankled. He dressed as Darth Vader for one event, referred to himself as “the Dark Lord” in front of TV cameras and scheduled the final press conference on June 6, 2006.)
Fuiten said he will not help out with the referendum. He doesn’t think organizers can gather the 150,000 or so signatures they’ll need or win a statewide vote over the domestic partnerships legislation.
“And I hope I’m proved wrong,” he said.