OLYMPIA – Washington’s gay marriage law was blocked from taking effect Wednesday, as opponents filed more than 200,000 signatures seeking a public vote on the issue in November.
Preserve Marriage Washington submitted the signatures just a day before the state was to begin allowing same-sex marriages. State officials will review the signatures over the next week to determine if proposed Referendum 74 will qualify for a public vote, though the numbers suggest the measure will make the ballot easily.
“The current definition of marriage works and has worked,” said Joseph Backholm, the chair of Preserve Marriage Washington, as he stood next to stacked boxes of petitions.
The law, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year, would make Washington the seventh state to have legal same-sex marriages.
National groups have already promised time and money to fight the law, including the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which was involved in ballot measures that overturned same-sex marriage in California and Maine.
Opponents of the law said they believe Washington voters will defeat the measure, joining every other state that has put the issue to a public vote.
“Thirty-two states have voted on this issue. No states have voted to redefine marriage. People think this country is divided down the middle on this issue, and that’s simply not true,” Christopher Plante, spokesman for Preserve Marriage Washington, said in an interview.
“The fact of the matter is, if you look at what Americans have done, from the deepest blue states like Maine, California and Wisconsin to the Bible Belt, when they’ve had a chance to define marriage as one man, one woman, that’s what they’ve done,” he said.
But a wide coalition of supporters of the law said the petitions seeking a public vote do not reflect actual voter sentiment. They said Washington, which earlier upheld the state’s 2009 “everything-but-marriage” law, has a better chance at winning a public vote than other states.
“It’s true that 32 out of 32 states have gone the wrong way on this, so we’re definitely fighting against pretty daunting precedent,” Zach Silk of Washington United for Marriage, which will try to defeat the referendum, told the Los Angeles Times. “We would certainly consider ourselves the underdogs, but we feel like we’re in a strong position, and Washington is probably one of the more likely places where we can win.”
Supporters of the same-sex marriage law have signed on a number of influential Washington businesses, including Microsoft and Starbucks, to defeat the referendum.
Gay marriage supporters, expecting that the referendum would qualify, have already been raising money to protect the law.
“It’s fair to say it’s going to be an extremely expensive race,” Silk said.
The issue has implications on ballots across the nation.
Gay marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama recently declared his support for gay marriage. In Washington state, the referendum has split the state’s two candidates for governor.
Maryland is also having a public referendum vote this fall, while Maine voters will vote on an initiative to legalize same-sex marriage. Minnesota voters will decide on a constitutional amendment declaring that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.
Washington state has had domestic partnership laws since 2007 and in 2009 passed an “everything but marriage” expansion of that law, which was ultimately upheld by voters after a referendum challenge.
A poll by Seattle consulting firm Strategies 360 showed that 54 percent of voters in the state think it should be legal for same-sex couples to get married, though the poll didn’t specifically ask them how they would vote on a referendum.
The Washington secretary of state’s office recommends that referendum campaigns submit about 150,000 signatures in order to provide a cushion for invalid or duplicate signatures. Backholm estimated the campaign was delivering about 240,000 signatures.