OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Voters in Washington state this November apparently will get to decide whether to keep or overturn the state's same-sex "everything but marriage" law, which grants homosexual couples all the legal benefits of marriage and which conservatives warn will lead to the legalization of full-fledged "gay marriage" in the state.
The Washington secretary of state announced Monday that organizers of Referendum 71 had collected enough valid signatures to place it on the November ballot, capping a pro-family effort that surprised liberals and even some conservatives in its success. Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law in May, but it won't go into effect until voters have a say. Meanwhile, supporters of the new law have filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the signatures as illegal and keep the referendum off the ballot.
Washington state is one of five states to grant same-sex couples all the legal benefits of marriage, minus the name. It would be the first, though, to enact such a law and then reverse course.
Both sides expect an expensive, tough campaign -- a campaign that will start with supporters and opponents clearing up confusion as to how their constituents should vote. A vote to "approve" Referendum 71 would keep the domestic partnerships law. A vote to "reject" the referendum would overturn the law. The confusion stems from the fact that the law (S.B. 5688) itself is on the ballot, and voters are being asked if they want to keep it. In other words, the same group that put the referendum on the ballot is now urging a "no" vote.
Protect Marriage Washington, the umbrella organization that organized the petition drive, collected 137,000 signatures in about 60 days. The secretary of state's office said Monday that 121,617 had been validated -- roughly 1,000 more than needed.
The 112-page bill says that in interpreting state law, the benefits of marriage "shall be interpreted as applying equally" to domestic partnerships.
"We believe the institution of marriage is unique and is special, and it provides unique benefits to society, and as such it should be treated uniquely by society," Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, told Baptist Press. His organization helped gather signatures for the referendum. "The law represents real threats to religious freedom by taking a moral position that there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, and we believe that's inappropriate for the state to do. For those who will continue to believe there is a difference between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, we don't believe the law, in any way, shape or form, should punish them for those beliefs."
Scott Brewer of Redmond, Wash., said he will be voting to reject the new law because the issue is "not about bigotry against gays but about support for traditional marriage." Brewer is pastor of Meadowbrook Church, a congregation in Redmond affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
"Washington State's recent legislative effort known as S.B. 5688 claims that the intent is to expand benefits for domestic partnerships," Brewer told Baptist Press in an e-mail interview. "Many fair-minded citizens would agree that both heterosexual and homosexual relationships should enjoy the rights to visit a sick loved one in the intensive care unit of a hospital or pass on shared assets at the time of death. … ut S.B. 5688 goes beyond these ideas and contends (180 times in 112 pages) that 'marriage shall apply equally to state registered domestic partnerships.' In other words this is a redefinition of marriage."
Conservatives gathered enough signatures for Referendum 71 in spite of three major obstacles in their path:
-- A small window of opportunity. Gregoire intentionally waited as long as she could to sign the bill, cutting by one-third the amount of time conservatives had to collect signatures.
-- A lengthy bill. By state law, the entire text of the bill -- all 112 pages of it -- had to be attached to the petitions. Conservatives -- some of whom said the legislature made the bill long on purpose -- crammed it onto one large single-spaced page by using 6-point font and then folding the paper multiple times.
-- A lofty goal. A record turnout for the 2008 general election meant that conservatives had to gather a larger-than-usual number of signatures. By law, a referendum must gather a number of signatures equal to four percent of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.
Although the state technically hasn't legalized "gay marriage," Backholm warns that the new law would only make it easier to do so. He also calls the new law and any "gay marriage" law a "distinction without a difference."
"This law takes the moral position that there is no difference between the two," he said. "So if A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. We know their ultimate goal is to have [gay marriage legalized] anyway, so this is just one of the debates in a bigger battle."
If the domestic partnerships law is to be rejected, Backholm said, then churches must get involved.
"There are many churches that did [play a big role in gathering signatures]," he said. "We, of course, would like to see many more churches see the significance of this issue, and, ironically, it's the churches and the pastors and their religious freedom in many cases which is really at stake in a lot of this."