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Washington voters will decide fate of same-sex marriages

Law passed in February is on hold pending referendum

Partners Justin Nonthaveth, left, and Chris Olson, of Seattle, hope for passage of Referendum 74 so they can mark their 10-year anniversary in 2014 by marrying. (Associated Press)
Partners Justin Nonthaveth, left, and Chris Olson, of Seattle, hope for passage of Referendum 74 so they can mark their 10-year anniversary in 2014 by marrying. (Associated Press)
Rachel La Corte Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Three years ago, Washington voters approved an “everything but marriage” law, giving same-sex couples all the state-granted rights and benefits that married couples have. Now voters will decide whether to take the next step and allow marriage for all couples in the state, regardless of sexual orientation – something that has not yet been achieved by a public vote.

Referendum 74 asks people to either approve or reject the state’s new law legalizing same-sex marriage. That law, passed earlier this year, is on hold pending next month’s vote.

Washington is one of four states where voters are being asked about gay marriage. Maryland legalized gay marriage this year as well, but that state will also have a public vote next month. In Maine, voters will decide on an initiative to approve same-sex marriage three years after a referendum overturned a gay marriage law passed by the Maine Legislature. And in Minnesota, voters will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage there.

“This comes at a time where there’s tremendous momentum, and the possibility of winning one or more of these ballot measures will add even more to that momentum,” said Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry.

More than $2.6 million has been spent on Washington’s campaign so far, with a bulk of it spent by gay marriage supporters. Washington United for Marriage has far outraised its opponents, bringing in about $8.9 million compared to the more than $1.7 million raised so far by Preserve Marriage Washington, which opposes the law. The biggest single donation to the campaign in support of the law came from founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, who donated $2.5 million in July.

The National Organization for Marriage, which was involved in ballot measures that overturned same-sex marriage in California and Maine, has donated more than $600,000 so far to the effort in Washington.

Arny Davis, a Chehalis business owner who’s also chief deputy treasurer for Lewis County, said he sees gay marriage as an “erosion of the moral fiber of our society” and will be voting to reject the new law.

“I don’t like to impose my beliefs on other people, but I think you have to draw the line on issues like this,” he said. “The sanctity of marriage is the core of a true family, in my opinion.”

The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, bars federal recognition of gay unions and denies gay couples access to federal pensions, health insurance and other government benefits. Since then, six states – New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont – and the District of Columbia have enacted laws or issued court rulings that permit same-sex marriage. But it’s prohibited elsewhere, and 30 states have placed bans in their constitutions.

Supporters of gay marriage say they are encouraged by developments this year that include a federal appeals court striking down California’s ban on same-sex marriage, which is still on hold pending appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, and President Barack Obama’s declaration of his support for gay marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet taken up any cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and is not expected to until after the presidential election.

But in the 32 states where the issue has been on a statewide ballot, most recently in North Carolina, gay marriage advocates have lost every time.

“The other side will try to say the tide has changed, but where’s the tide changed?” asked Chip White, deputy campaign director for Preserve Marriage Washington. Washington state’s slow-but-steady approach to gay marriage has been several years in the making.

A year after Washington’s gay marriage ban was upheld by the state Supreme Court, the state’s first domestic partnership law passed in 2007, granting couples about two dozen rights, including hospital visitation and inheritance rights when there is no will. It was expanded a year later and then again in 2009, when lawmakers completed the package with the so-called “everything but marriage” bill that was ultimately upheld by voters later that same year.

This year, lawmakers passed the law allowing gay marriage, and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it in February. Preserve Marriage gathered enough signatures for a referendum, and the law remains on hold pending November’s vote.

One of Preserve Marriage’s main arguments against the law is that it’s unnecessary because gay couples already have all of the same state-granted rights heterosexual married couples do.

But Wolfson said the reasons gay people want to get married are the same as anyone else.

“Just being handed a set of legal protections is not a substitute for standing in front of your family and friends and neighbors and the state and having the commitment you’ve made in life affirmed under law,” he said.

Recent polling has indicated support for the new law. In September, independent pollster Stuart Elway found the measure holding a 51-37 lead for approval among registered voters, with 12 percent undecided.

For Chris Olson, of Seattle, the outcome of the vote will determine whether he will marry his partner of eight years in 2014 to mark their 10-year anniversary, or hold a commitment ceremony and consider a domestic partnership instead.

“In an ideal world, we should not be voting on it,” he said. “It makes me very nervous.”

Republican state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima voted in support of the “everything but marriage” law in 2009 but voted against gay marriage on the Senate floor this year and said he’ll vote to reject the new law next month as well. He said he doesn’t see a conflict in his support of domestic partnerships.

“I thought everybody should have the ability to have the same rights, no matter what,” he said. “You want to be fair and equitable with everyone, but you don’t change a definition just because somebody says ‘I want to change it.’ ”

The law doesn’t require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages, and doesn’t subject them to penalties if they don’t marry gay or lesbian couples.

But opponents have argued that businesses and individuals, such as bakers and photographers, could face lawsuits if they didn’t want to do business with gay couples seeking their services for marriage ceremonies.

State Sen. Ed Murray, a Democratic gay lawmaker from Seattle who sponsored the marriage bill, said discrimination based on sexual orientation is already illegal under the state’s anti-discrimination law, which was expanded in 2006 to cover gays and lesbians.

“The ballot measure does not force businesses to do anything,” he said. “What they’re arguing is that we should go back and open up the civil rights law.”

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