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Court OKs release of R-71 petitions

SEATTLE – Washington’s secretary of state can release the names and addresses of people who signed petitions calling for a public vote on the state’s expanded benefits for domestic partners, a federal appeals court said Thursday.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous decision by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma to block release of the petitions. Settle held that releasing the names could chill the First Amendment rights of petition signers.

Despite the appeals court ruling, the names weren’t immediately released because a state court order remained in effect. Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, said her office must now persuade a Thurston County judge to lift a temporary restraining order issued Wednesday forbidding the release of the petitions until the 9th Circuit could rule.

An assistant to the judge said he would not hear arguments until next week at the earliest.

Settle’s ruling last month stunned open-government activists.

“These petitions are not like a secret ballot, but amount to taking part in our legislative process, which is required to be open and accountable,” Secretary of State Sam Reed said.

Referendum 71 asks voters to approve or reject the so-called “everything but marriage” law, which grants registered domestic partners the same legal rights as married heterosexuals.

Conservative Christian groups that sponsored R-71 want to keep the signed petitions out of public view because they fear harassment from gay-rights supporters, some of whom have vowed to post the names of petition signers on the Internet.

The conservative groups lost a fight to keep the identities of their campaign donors secret.

Referendum sponsor Gary Randall of Protect Washington Families said he, another campaign organizer and their lawyers were considering whether to ask the 9th Circuit for a rehearing with more judges.

“There’s been calls and harassment and confrontation of people who donated who just thought they were participating in the democratic process,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right.”

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