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Originally published July 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 30, 2009 at 8:05 AM

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Judge in Tacoma bars release of Ref. 71 petition signers — for now

A federal judge in Tacoma has temporarily blocked release of the names of those who signed petitions for Referendum 71, which would repeal a recent law giving gay couples new marriagelike benefits.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A federal judge in Tacoma has temporarily blocked release of the names and addresses of those who signed petitions for Referendum 71, which would repeal a recent law giving gay couples new marriagelike benefits.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle on Wednesday afternoon granted a temporary restraining order requested by Protect Marriage Washington to stop the Secretary of State's Office from making the signers' names public.

The order will remain in place until a hearing set for Sept. 3.

Earlier Wednesday, the Secretary of State's Office had said that while it has no statutory authority to withhold the names, it also did not plan to contest the effort to temporarily block their release. No one from the state Attorney General's Office was present at the hearing.

Settle cited that absence in his written order, and he also gave what appears to be a nod to the strength of the referendum backers' case, writing that they "have sufficiently demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits" of their First Amendment claim, and "a reasonable likelihood of irreparable harm if the names are released."

Larry Stickney, campaign manager with Protect Marriage Washington, and the group's attorney, Stephen Pidgeon, high-fived one another in the courtroom as they read the written order.

"We think it's good news," Stickney said.

A consortium of religious conservative organizations, Protect Marriage Washington on Saturday submitted 138,500 signatures to the secretary of state seeking to qualify Referendum 71 for the November ballot.

At least 120,577 of the signatures must be valid for the referendum to qualify.

Tom Lang, director of knowthyneighbor.org, which hopes to post the names on that Web site, said he was intensely disappointed, saying the state had failed to defend its own public-disclosure law in court.

Lang, of Massachusetts, is working in conjunction with activists in Washington state, as he has in other states. The local activists' Web site is whosigned.org.

They had hoped to post the names and addresses as soon as they were available, allowing the public to do its own search for invalid names.

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"All this information belongs to the public," Lang said. "We should not have to ask for it to be made public or wait for a court decision."

Protect Marriage Washington sued to block release of the names on constitutional grounds, claiming state disclosure law "chills free speech ... particularly when it is reasonably probable that those exercising their First Amendment rights would be subjected to threats and harassment."

"No petition signer should have to endure the threats and harassment I endured while circulating the petition," Stickney said.

David Ammons, spokesman for the secretary of state, said his office has already received three formal orders for the names, including one from Brian Murphy of whosigned.org.

An examination of the validity of each signature began Wednesday. Referendum backers have said they did not have faith that the state would act fairly in checking the 138,000 signatures, but it was unclear how they might address that concern.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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