Stakes high in fight over gay rights
Religious conservatives are telling voters that Referendum 71 is the last chance to stop those who would legalize gay marriage, while their opponents try to keep the debate focused on domestic partnerships — something that to many voters is still unfamiliar.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Evolution of state's domestic-partnership law
2007: Law passes creating a state registry for committed gay and lesbian partners and for heterosexual couples where one partner is at least 62. Among other things, the law allows one partner to:
• Visit the other in a hospital or health-care facility and make funeral arrangements.
• Give informed consent regarding the health care of a partner who is not competent.
• Receive health-related information about the other.
• Consent to autopsies and authorize organ and tissue donations.
• Inherit the other's property without a will.
2008: Law is expanded into areas of financial security, addressing jointly owned property and debts, estate planning and taxes, and also providing for nursing-home visits and rights to certain veteran benefits.
2009: This version, passed by the Legislature in 2009, will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would expand the law to include registered partners in all other areas of state law that now apply only to married couples, entitling partners, among other things:
• To use sick leave to care for one another.
• To receive an injured partner's wages and benefits, unemployment and disability-insurance benefits and to obtain any unpaid wages upon death.
• To death benefits for partners of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
• To pension benefits for partners of teachers and other public employees.
The legislature passed Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5688 concerning rights and responsibilities of state-registered domestic partners and voters have filed a sufficient referendum petition on this bill. This bill would expand the rights, responsibilities, and obligations accorded state-registered same-sex and senior domestic partners to be equivalent to those of married spouses, except that a domestic partnership is not a marriage.
Should this bill be: Approved ___ Rejected ___
Source: Secretary of State's Office
The showdown over Washington's domestic-partnership law is likely to turn on one word: marriage.
Referendum 71 will ask voters to approve or reject the law's latest expansion, which would allow registered gay and senior couples to use sick leave to care for each other, to claim one another's death benefits and to enjoy all the other privileges and responsibilities the state now confers on married couples — everything except the name.
Religious conservatives, who collected enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot and want to see it repealed, are telling people their vote will decide gay marriage in Washington state.
Their bold, red-and-black yard signs urge voters to "Preserve Marriage and Protect Children," and similar-styled fliers depict Ozzie and Harriet as the ideal "mom-and-dad" family.
"We believe this is the last opportunity for citizens to protect marriage," said Larry Stickney, campaign manager of Protect Marriage Washington, the law's opponents. "Ultimately it is marriage. And if people understand that, we will prevail."
Supporters of the law, meanwhile, have a much more complicated job.
While their opponents say the fight is about marriage, many within their own camp grumble over a fight that isn't even about marriage.
In debates and in phone calls to prospective voters, Washington Families Standing Together, which wants to preserve the law, faces the challenge of keeping the debate focused on what the referendum really does speak to — domestic partnerships — and educating a still-unfamiliar public about such legal unions.
State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, architect of the state's domestic-partnership law and the state's longest-serving openly gay lawmaker, said domestic partnership isn't marriage at all and legally doesn't lead to it.
It will not allow him and his partner, Michael Shiosaki — together 18 years — to live as a married couple in their own state, he said.
More than 1,100 federal protections and benefits afforded to married couples — from joint tax filings to Social Security benefits — do not apply to state-registered domestic partners, he points out. And their unions are invalid once they leave Washington and enter other states without such laws, like Idaho.
But Murray is also candid when he says he hopes the discussion around domestic partnerships will lead the Legislature, the governor and voters across the state to accept the idea of same-sex marriage.
"I think we are going to win in November," he said. "And then it will be only a few years 'til we get to full equality."
In contests from Maine to Washington, the stakes are huge for both sides. While gay-rights advocates have made significant gains through the courts and legislatures around the country in recent years, they have lost virtually every time a same-sex issue has been put to the voters.
They need to post a win now to show that public sentiment is indeed changing in their favor, as polls suggest. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, see continued victories at the polls as proof the public remains firmly with them as they try to halt what they see as a general decline of society through the broadening of gay rights.
Murray said he knew in his heart any relationship law he put forth in the state could find its way to the ballot.
As he prepared to introduce a domestic-partnership law for the first time three years ago, he got an earful — from just about everyone, everywhere.
Some local gays, as well as colleagues in Olympia and across the country, saw no point in dawdling around with civil unions and domestic partnerships, and they urged him to push directly for same-sex marriage.
At the very least, they told him, he should pursue full domestic partnerships from the get-go, rather than trying to win benefits piece by piece in legislation that could drag out for years.
In hindsight, Murray says he believes he did the right thing — introducing over three legislative sessions measures that would extend to registered domestic partners many of the same state-sponsored benefits married heterosexual couples have.
Those early gains included the ability of one partner to visit another in a hospital or health-care facility and to make funeral arrangements, and they dealt with issues over estate planning and joint property.
Incremental introduction of domestic partnerships has allowed people to become more familiar with it, Murray said.
"Now, we don't stand to lose the entire thing," he said. "We're not facing the marriage battle yet. And every year that goes gets us closer and closer to marriage. If we'd gone for full marriage, we would have faced a ballot challenge, and I don't think we would have won."
"A culture war"
Last fall, about the same time Murray was working on the latest version of the law, about 30 religious conservatives gathered at Stickney's Arlington home.
These are the folks opposed to what they call "special rights" for gays and who years earlier had fought successfully in state courts to defend Washington's Defense of Marriage Act statute, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
After their big victory, they essentially had gone dormant — doing virtually nothing in 2007 when the Legislature first introduced the domestic-partnership law, or the following year when lawmakers expanded it for the first time.
But they would act this time around.
At that meeting in Stickney's home, they came up with a strategy: flood legislative hearings with crowds of like-minded people and, if necessary, run a referendum to let the voters decide.
"It's a culture war on this issue," Stickney said. "Our very way of life is being threatened. It's not that same-sex marriage is the end of the world. But so much about it sets the tone for how we'll go about developing our society over the next 30 years."
Dan Hawes, field director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said conservatives are using the initiative process to roll back or simply erase the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in state after state.
At the same time, he says there's increased support for LGBT, evidenced by the pace at which lawmakers in states across the country are passing legislation promoting equality for gays.
While acknowledging that gay-marriage proponents have been on the losing side of ballot measures around the country, Hawes said the margins of defeat are growing increasingly slim.
"Our biggest challenges have been to effectively counter the rise in stereotypes that the right wing promotes about gay people," Hawes said.
In addition to Washington's Ref. 71 vote, voters in Maine will be asked to approve or reject same-sex-marriage legislation, which the governor signed in May.
And in the Michigan city of Kalamazoo, voters will decide the fate of a city ordinance that would include sexual orientation among the characteristics protected against discrimination.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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