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Originally published May 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 6, 2009 at 3:43 AM

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Religious right not united in push to repeal benefits for gay couples

Religious conservatives across Washington state are divided over a new campaign to repeal legislation extending all the benefits of marriage — except the name — to gay and lesbian couples.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Religious conservatives across the state are divided over a new campaign to repeal legislation extending all the benefits of marriage — except the name — to gay and lesbian couples.

Conservative faith leaders on Monday followed through on an earlier pledge, filing a referendum to overturn Senate Bill 5688, which extends to same-sex couples all the state-given benefits of marriage previously reserved for opposite-sex couples.

But some prominent religious conservatives are not on board with the campaign, saying the timing is all wrong, given the state of the economy.

The referendum's backers — a network of Catholic, Protestant and Mormon organizations with some 100,000 constituents — have until July 25 to gather the 120,500 signatures necessary to qualify the measure for the November ballot. However, they can't begin collecting signatures until the governor has signed the bill into law, which should happen within two weeks.

Gary Randall, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Network, which is leading the coalition of bill opponents, said he feels they have a good shot at getting their numbers.

"There's a broad coalition of organizations involved with us," Randall said. "We're not assuming everyone will be on board, but conservatively there are 100,000 people involved in those organizations. So, based on that, I think the chances are pretty good."

But the Rev. Joe Fuiten of Cedar Park Church in Bothell, who believes these domestic-partnership measures are a path to gay marriage, which he opposes, said he can't support the repeal.

Among faith leaders across the state, he said, "there's a pretty strong consensus not to run this campaign."

"People are more focused on economic issues at the moment — trying to figure out how to pay their mortgage and save their job and keep their businesses afloat," he said.

The political landscape for same-sex couples has changed in the three years since initiative backer Tim Eyman, dressed as Darth Vader, stood on the steps of the Secretary of State's Office to say he had come up short of the 112,000 signatures needed to undo a state law that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Four states now have gay marriage.

A recent Elway poll for the Faith and Freedom Network found support for gay marriage in Washington state at 43 percent, with 50 percent of respondents opposing it.

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Over the past three legislative sessions, Washington lawmakers have expanded the state's domestic-partnership laws to add a series of benefits previously reserved for married people. This year's bill gave registered same-sex couples everything married couples have — except the name.

As of Monday, the state had 5,324 registered domestic partners.

Many religious conservatives believe the legislation removes all legal defenses the state has in maintaining the term "marriage" as uniquely a union between one man and one woman.

"As soon as this bill becomes law, someone can litigate and with a fairly easy case, they should have marriage," Randall said. "Every legal difference has been removed, and domestic partnership has been elevated to the same level as marriage."

Peter Nicolas, a law professor at the University of Washington, said the legislation would not help same-sex couples' legal argument in court — but might hurt it.

Referring to a state Supreme Court decision in 2006 that upheld the state's defense-of-marriage law, he said, "If the court found no violation of equal protection and due-process rights when gays and lesbians were being given nothing, it would be less likely to do so after the Legislature has provided them some measure of rights."

Longtime gay activist Bill Dubay said trying to take away rights from one group seems like a waste of resources in a recession.

"It makes no sense that our opponents are so obsessed with legislation when it has no effect on their own personal relationships," he said.

And Equal Rights Washington, a gay-rights organization, said it is prepared to fight the referendum.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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