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Originally published February 2, 2012 at 8:56 PM | Page modified February 2, 2012 at 9:03 PM

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National forces likely to lead on gay-marriage referendum effort

A national group that's spent big money fighting same-sex marriage across the country is gearing up to overturn a gay-marriage bill that's almost certain to pass in Washington state.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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With same-sex marriage virtually assured in Washington state, opponents seeking to undo it are looking ahead to summer and fall, and to a campaign they say will draw on the resources of national organizations that have waged and won these kinds of fights.

A day after the state Senate approved same-sex marriage on a 28-21 vote and moved the bill to the House, where it's expected to pass, the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage (NOM) said it's fully committed to repealing the measure in November.

One of the largest national funders in the fight against gay marriage, NOM also is gearing up for ballot battles in North Carolina and Minnesota, where voters this year will decide whether to ban gay marriage in their constitutions, as 29 states already have done.

In Washington state, NOM will employ strategies not unlike those it used four years ago to help roll back legislatively approved gay marriage in Maine and bring about a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in California under Proposition 8.

"We plan to submit a referendum on this to the secretary of state before the ink is dry on the governor's signature," said Chris Plante, regional coordinator for NOM. "We've got a major constituency; faith communities across the state will carry a heavy load on this. But they're not the only ones committed to retaining the current definition of marriage."

Because there's no emergency clause on the same-sex-marriage bill now being debated in Olympia, the measure, once signed by the governor, would take effect 90 days after the end of the regular legislative session. That would make June 7 the earliest date gay couples could marry here. It also means opponents would have until June 6 to collect 120,577 signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot.

If they fail, the law would take effect as scheduled June 7. If opponents collect enough valid signatures, the law would be suspended and the referendum would be put on the ballot, leaving voters to decide by a simple majority whether the law is thrown out or Washington becomes the seventh state to allow gays to marry.

The Rev. Joe Fuiten, senior pastor of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell, said attorneys already are working to determine wording of the referendum.

"We are 100 percent sure there'll be a referendum, and there's a 99 percent chance we'll be successful in getting the signatures," Fuiten said.

NOM will join the Washington campaign, Plante said, bringing an expertise and ability to coordinate grass-roots organizations — some of the groups that two years ago tried unsuccessfully to repeal parts of the state's domestic partnership through Referendum 71.

"The folks running that campaign pulled it out of a hat," he said, referring to their against-all-odds success in getting enough petition signatures to put that measure on the ballot.

"Imagine how much better they could be with help of a national organization like ours," he said.

Strategies would include a range of media campaigns intended to educate voters, persuading people to register to vote and encouraging them to mail their ballots on time.

"We won't do all the work, but we will bring expertise, experience and the resources of a national organization," Plante said. "We have the ability to raise money effectively, not just in Washington, but across the country."

In 2008, just a year after it was established, NOM spent more than $1.7 million — a good chunk of its total revenues for that year — to push passage of Proposition 8, according to IRS filings.

In 2010, the group's war chest had grown to $9.6 million.

NOM has said it will spend $250,000 to help unseat Senate Republicans who crossed the party platform to vote for same-sex marriage. Four Republican state senators — Joe Fain of Auburn, Andy Hill of Redmond, Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Cheryl Pflug of Maple Valley — voted with Democrats in favor of the bill Wednesday night; three Democrats voted with Republicans against it.

"There's no question they exert influence," said Peter Nicolas, a University of Washington law professor who authored a book about same-sex-marriage legislation nationwide.

The group, he said, has resources and strong determination when it comes to same-sex marriage. "They've been successful in defeating ballot initiatives regarding gay marriage. But I'm not sure how much success they've had in displacing legislators who supported rights for same-sex couples."

Working to defend the legislation is a coalition of religious, labor and community organizations formed in November as United for Marriage. It, too, has friends with national resources.

Campaign manager Zach Silk said organizers have learned from losses in places such as California and have no intention of taking their opponents for granted.

At the same time, public sentiment toward same-sex marriage has grown more favorable in recent years, with national and state polls showing a majority of voters support legalizing such unions.

The 2008 loss in California was "a lifetime ago," Silk said.

"We are taking the opposition at their word: They'll spend a lot of money, confuse the voters ... ," he said.

"We're gonna make sure that people hear our stories."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420

or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @turnbullL

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