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Originally published October 29, 2012 at 8:38 PM | Page modified October 29, 2012 at 10:13 PM

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Truth Needle: Gay-marriage 'harm' about bias, not law itself

Truth Needle: A new anti-referendum 74 television ad says experience shows how approving gay marriage "can harm" those opposed to the unions. We find the claim half true.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Anti-gay-marriage ad: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqcbDVDTTx0&feature=youtu.be

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In short, these people are lying in order to impose their fringe views on everyone else... MORE
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thats very scary that these people want you PUNISHED for your views. Nope, you are... MORE

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The claim: A new television ad by Preserve Marriage Washington, the group seeking to repeal the state's same-sex-marriage law by rejecting Referendum 74, claims that approving gay marriage "can harm" those who oppose such unions. The ad features Vermont innkeepers who were sued after they refused to accommodate a lesbian couple's wedding reception, and a Canadian sportscaster who said he was fired after expressing his support for traditional marriage in a tweet.

What we found: Half true

Threat of lawsuits against business owners and others who don't support same-sex marriage is a claim perpetuated by those fighting the legalization of gay marriage across the country.

Same-sex-marriage opponents have made the claims in other states, too — the same Vermont couple is featured in an ad currently running in Maine — that florists, photographers and other business owners who don't agree with same-sex marriage would face lawsuits if such unions were legalized.

In February, The Seattle Times fact-checked claims by same-sex-marriage opponents that there would be a rash of civil suits against those who, because of their religious beliefs, don't want to provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples.

We concluded then that the claim was mostly false, in part because there was no evidence of a rash of lawsuits in other states that have approved same-sex marriage.

This new ad by Preserve Marriage Washington doesn't suggest there will be a rash of lawsuits. Rather, it highlights two cases of individuals who say they've suffered because of their views.

In the 30-second spot, the narrator intones: "Experience shows how Referendum 74 can harm people who oppose gay marriage." The innkeepers and the sportscaster then tell their stories.

It is true that the Wildflower Inn in Vermont was sued after refusing to host a same-sex wedding reception. But that "harm" occurred only because the couple were accused of violating an anti-discrimination law.

And the case, and a few others like it, stemmed not from violations of same-sex-marriage laws in states where it is legal, but from anti-discrimination statutes that already exist in Washington and 21 other states and the District of Columbia.

Vermont's Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act, the basis of the Vermont suit, prohibits inns, hotels and other establishments with five or more rooms from turning away patrons based on sexual orientation.

Washington's own anti-discrimination law, which was expanded in 2006 to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, also protects against discrimination in areas of public accommodation.

Chip White, spokesman for Preserve Marriage Washington, said the suits have not been about sexual orientation, and he dismissed the role of anti-discrimination laws in these cases.

"When marriage is redefined, those who believe in traditional marriage are punished," White said.

The same-sex-marriage legislation that lawmakers approved in this state earlier this year specifically exempts churches and religious leaders from having to perform marriage ceremonies for gays or having to recognize same-sex unions.

Attempts to amend the bill during floor debate to include exemptions for business owners with religious objections failed.

Six states and the District of Columbia currently have same-sex-marriage laws.

The case involving the Wildflower Inn in the town of Lyndonville has been repeatedly cited — in part because cases like it are rare.

In the ad, Jim and Mary O'Reilly, owners of the Wildflower, said they were fined $30,000 for not supporting the wedding reception of a lesbian couple from New York.

Sued by the ACLU, the O'Reillys reached a settlement to pay a $10,000 civil penalty to the Vermont Human Rights Commission and to place $20,000 in a charitable trust. The Wildflower also agreed it would no longer host weddings and wedding receptions — a move the couple's lawyer, Jim Campbell, in news reports said had been planned anyway.

The ad also features Damian Goddard, a former on-air host for Rogers Sportsnet in Canada, where gay marriage has been legal nationwide for seven years. He said he was fired last year, a day after he tweeted support for a hockey sports agent's position on marriage.

His tweet read: "I completely and wholeheartedly support Todd Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage."

Goddard said the timing of the firing right after the tweet leaves no doubt why he was let go. But Sportsnet said the decision to fire him was made before Goddard sent his tweet and that it has documentation to support that position. "In recent weeks it had become clear that he is not the right fit for our organization," the company said in a statement.

The two sides have gone through mediation with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and the status of the case is unclear.

In November, Goddard was tapped as spokesman for the Anti-Defamation Alliance, an arm of the National Organization for Marriage, which is fighting gay-marriage measures on ballots here and in three other states.

We find the ad half true because while there have been lawsuits against those opposed to same-sex marriage, eight years after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage such suits are rare and all have been based not on any same-sex marriage law but on anti-discrimination laws.

Also, in the case of Goddard's firing, the two sides don't agree on why he was let go.

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

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