OLYMPIA – Expanded domestic partnerships for same-sex couples could face a public vote after Washington officials ruled that referendum sponsors have enough voter support to force a referendum on the November ballot.
The new partnership law, nicknamed “everything but marriage” by its supporters, would broaden domestic partnerships by granting gay and lesbian couples all the remaining state-provided benefits that presently apply only to married heterosexual couples.
After a month of counting petition signatures, the secretary of state’s office said Monday that Referendum 71 had 121,617 valid voter signatures – more than a thousand more than needed to advance to the general election.
The tally could increase as rejected signatures are double-checked, but that won’t be the final word. Supporters of expanded domestic partnerships asked a King County Superior Court judge on Monday to at least temporarily block the referendum from the ballot, arguing that election officials have accepted thousands of invalid petition signatures. Judge Julie Spector said she would rule early Wednesday, the same day Secretary of State Sam Reed said he’ll certify the referendum to the ballot.
State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who has spearheaded domestic partnership efforts in the state, called it a “tragic day for the state, where we will put the rights of a group of our citizens up for a vote.”
Nevertheless, Murray predicted victory: “We’re going to fight and I believe we’re going to win, but it’s going to be very difficult,” he said.
The new law was supposed to take effect July 26. But the referendum campaign put it on hold, and the law can now take effect only if approved by state voters Nov. 3.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said that while she respected the referendum process she was “very disappointed that this message will be debated once again.”
“I signed the original bill and believe it should be and will be the law of our great state,” she said in a written statement.
Rights granted under the latest phase of domestic partnerships range from adoption and child support to public employment benefits – although any benefits that cost the state money, such as pensions, are delayed until 2014 because of the state’s recession-fueled budget problems.
The underlying domestic partnership law, which the Legislature passed in 2007, provided hospital visitation rights, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations, and inheritance rights when there is no will.
Last year, lawmakers expanded that law to give domestic partners standing under laws covering probate and trusts, community property and guardianship. Opposite-gender seniors also can register as domestic partners.
If rejected at the polls, R-71 wouldn’t overturn those first two phases of domestic partnerships. But a failure in November would roll back the additional rights approved earlier this year under the “everything but marriage” law, which puts domestic partners on par with married couples in all areas of state law that deal with marriage rights.
Opponents of the law say overturning it will help stop full-fledged gay marriage from gaining a foothold in the state.
“We’re not trying to keep anyone from having anything, we’re simply trying to keep marriage from being redefined,” said Gary Randall, of Protect Washington Families, which pushed to get the referendum on the ballot. “The wrong side of the issue is to redefine marriage.”
As of this week, more than 5,800 domestic partnership registrations had been filed in Washington since the first law took effect in July 2007.
A political group called WhoSigned.Org has said it will publish online the names of people who signed petitions to get the referendum on the ballot. The petition-listing effort is not supported by the official campaign that had tried to keep R-71 off the ballot.
A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order to bar the release of signatures on R-71 petitions, and a hearing on that case will be held in Tacoma on Thursday.
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