Foes vow challenge to gay marriage in Washington

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OLYMPIA -- Washington state is likely to become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage within the next two weeks, but opponents have already promised that a ballot challenge would halt any summertime weddings.

As supporters celebrated the Senate’s 28-21 vote passing the measure on Wednesday night, a coalition of religious groups promised to start collecting referendum signatures as soon as the measure is signed into law. The bill still has to be approved by the House, but with the tougher hurdle of the Senate already cleared, that second vote is just a formality.

Gov. Chris Gregoire announced support for the bill last month, and said she would sign it into law.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, noting its involvement in ballot measures that overturned same-sex marriage in California and Maine, issued a statement Thursday promising to work with groups in Washington to qualify a referendum to overturn the likely new law.

Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, a gay lawmaker from Seattle who has led the push for gay civil rights and domestic partnerships, said that he thinks the public will uphold same-sex marriage.

“It will be a tough battle, it will probably be an ugly battle, but I think we’ll win,” he said.

“Washington United for Marriage” is a coalition in support of same-sex marriage that was formed in November to lobby the Legislature to pass the measure and to run a campaign against any referendum challenging it.

“We take them at their word that they’re going to put this on the ballot,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage. “We’re readying ourselves now to have that fight.”

An official referendum campaign to overturn the law hasn’t yet been formed, but opponents say they are in the process of organizing one.

“This is an issue that moves people unlike most,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

Backholm’s group was among those who unsuccessfully tried to overturn the state’s 2009 expansion of domestic partnership rights for gay and lesbian couples, known as the “everything but marriage” bill. The law was upheld by 53 percent of voters.

Backholm said that this campaign will be different than that behind R-71.

“We’re going to be more organized,” he said. “We’ll have a strong state effort and a larger national presence as well.”

Backholm pointed to the precedent of voters overturning gay marriage laws in California in 2008 and in Maine the following year.

“We’re not talking the Bible Belt,” he said. “Even in left-leaning states, they’ve looked at this, raised an eyebrow and said, ‘no, that’s not marriage.’”

Silk said that the influx of national money from conservative religious groups “tipped the scales in California and Maine.”

Opponents must turn in 120,577 signatures by June 6. If opponents fall short in the number of signatures they turn in, gay and lesbian couples would be able to be wed as soon as the signature count is done, likely sometime in June. Otherwise, they would have to wait until the results of a November election.

Under the measure that passed the Senate on Wednesday, the more than 9,300 same-sex couples currently registered in domestic partnerships would have two years to either dissolve their relationship or get married. Domestic partnerships that aren’t ended prior to June 30, 2014, would automatically become marriages.

Domestic partnerships would remain for senior couples where at least one partner is 62 years old. That provision was included to help seniors who don’t remarry out of fear they could lose certain pension or Social Security benefits.

In October, a University of Washington poll found that an increasing number of people in the state support same-sex marriage. About 43 percent of respondents said they support gay marriage, up from 30 percent in the same poll five years earlier. Another 22 percent said they support giving identical rights to gay couples but just not calling it marriage.

When asked how they would vote if a referendum challenging a gay marriage law was on the ballot, 55 percent said they would vote yes to uphold the law, with 47 percent of them characterized as “strongly” yes, and 38 percent responded “no,” that they would vote to reject a gay marriage law.