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Originally published October 17, 2011 at 12:33 PM | Page modified October 18, 2011 at 8:37 AM

Ruling brings release of Ref. 71 signers' names

The Secretary of State's Office on Monday began making public the names of 137,500 people who signed Referendum 71 petitions after a judge ruled there was no evidence they would be subject to harassment. An attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the religious conservative group that sponsored the failed initiative to overturn a domestic-partnership law, said the court "erred."

Seattle Times staff reporter

U.S. District Court ruling on Ref. 71 signatures

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Even as a religious conservative group moved to stop it, the Secretary of State's Office on Monday began making public the names of 137,500 people who signed Referendum 71 petitions two years ago to bring a domestic-partnership law to a public vote.

The state's action followed a widely anticipated ruling by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle of Tacoma, who said Protect Marriage Washington had provided no compelling evidence of threats or harassment against petition signers and was not entitled to exemption from the state's Public Records Act.

His decision in Doe v. Reed cleared the way for the state to release the previously sealed petitions bearing the names.

In a strongly worded, 34-page ruling, Settle said every citizen should be concerned that advocating for traditional marriage, as Protect Marriage does, engenders such hostility in this state.

Yet, if Protect Marriage could get around the Public Records Act "by simply providing a few isolated incidents of profane or indecent statements, gestures, or other examples of uncomfortable conversations, ... disclosure would become the exception instead of the rule," the judge said.

Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney representing Protect Marriage, called the decision a "dramatic setback to the right of privacy in the state of Washington."

"There were death threats, serious death threats; there were acts of violence, harassment and published declarations that there would be harassment," he said.

Pidgeon said the state's release of the petitions does not negate an appeal, but he did not elaborate. "The court erred."

In a prepared statement, Secretary of State Sam Reed called the decision "a victory for transparency and open disclosure in our state's referendum and initiative process."

"When voters sign petitions," he said, "they are trying to change state law. We believe that changing state law should be open to public view."

Within hours of the ruling, the state had released DVDs of the petitions, available from the State Archives for $15 each.

Protect Marriage's decision to appeal continues a now-26-month legal battle that has generated tens of thousands of pages of legal filings, and consumed untold hours of attorney time on both sides.

Its seeds were first sown in the spring of 2009, when Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a measure expanding the state's domestic-partnership law. The additional provisions allowed same-sex and some senior couples to use sick leave to care for each other and to claim one another's death benefits.

Through Referendum 71, Protect Marriage sought to repeal the expanded law, calling it a slippery slope that would lead to same-sex marriage in Washington. In the end, Washingtonians voted by a narrow margin to keep the law intact.

Protect Marriage sued the state to block release of the petitions after gay-rights activist Brian Murphy said he would reveal the names on a pair of searchable websites, whosigned.org and knowthyneighbor.org.

The state argued that, for the sake of transparency, the names needed to remain public. It was joined by two interveners, Washington Coalition for Open Government and Washington Families Standing Together, which campaigned to retain the domestic-partnership laws.

Settle granted a preliminary injunction, sealing the Ref. 71 petitions. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in a year before being remanded back to Settle.

In making its case for secrecy, Protect Marriage faced a Catch 22: that it was impossible to show harassment of people whose names were not public.

So in court documents and in arguments before the judge, the group pointed to hostile fallout elsewhere, including across California after voters repealed gay marriage three years ago under Proposition 8. Churches and personal property were defaced and vandalized at the time, and people lost their jobs — incidents documented in 263 news and blog clippings and videos submitted as evidence in the case.

Using its email list, Protect Marriage also invited those who had been threatened because of their involvement with Ref. 71 to serve as witnesses.

In redacted declarations and depositions, about 20 described a range of incidents of harassment, from phoned-in death threats to roadside mooning — all presented as evidence.

In his written ruling, Settle himself "outed" the John Does and the unnamed plaintiffs in the case, noting that many had publicly opposed same-sex marriage and that none expressed fear of having their names disclosed.

Among the case's unnamed witnesses were state Sen. Val Stevens; the Rev. Ken Hutcherson; and Gary Randall, Larry Stickney and Stickney's son Matt, who were active in the Ref. 71 campaign.

Settle also said Protect Marriage failed to provide evidence of harassment against people who donated to the group's Ref. 71 campaign and whose names have been public for two years on the state's Public Disclosure Commission website.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420

or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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