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This is the first of two stories. Tomorrow’s story will talk with opponents of Referendum 74.
When Amy Wells went door-to-door in Vancouver this month to explain what the right to marry would mean to her, she encountered a mixed reaction.
One woman told her that marriage between two people of the same sex isn't "proper." Another woman said in a hushed voice that she would vote in support of same-sex marriage this fall, but her husband was voting no.
Wells, 51, of Vancouver, is part of the Southwest Washington effort to approve Referendum 74, a ballot measure that would grant same-sex couples the right to marry. If the referendum is approved by voters this fall, Washington would be the first state in the U.S. to vote in favor of same-sex marriage.
Wells has been with her partner for 19 years, and they have raised a son together. Wells appeared discouraged on Saturday after one resident refused to budge on the issue.
"I'd love to have a long conversation with her," Wells said, "and to tell them that the reason I would want to get married is the same reason they would want to get married. … Because you fell in love. Because you want to be committed. Because you want to be recognized for who you are and what your feelings are. But some people don't want to go there. They have other things to worry about. I get it."
Washington state's current domestic partnership law gives same-sex couples most of the rights granted to married heterosexual couples, including those related to medical decision-making and shared health care benefits. But many same-sex couples say they want to have their relationship recognized at the highest possible level, as a matter of respect and dignity.
"Marriage is incredibly important, because nothing says family, nothing gives legitimacy, like marriage," said Drew Griffin, lead organizer with Equality Southwest Washington. "Separate is never equal. Domestic partnerships, yes, allow for the same legal rights; but by the name itself, it's not equal. … I'm fighting for equality."
Griffin, of Vancouver, is the one leading the same-sex marriage fight in Southwest Washington. Given the area's close proximity to Portland, his group has teamed up with Basic Rights Oregon, which has helped advocate for the measure in Clark County through canvassing and phone banking.
Referendum 74 was put on the ballot by opponents of same sex marriage, following the Legislature's passage of a same-sex marriage bill earlier this year. A yes vote on the measure means one is voting to uphold the same-sex marriage legislation.
Three other states across the country this year also are voting on same-sex marriage measures. Proponents of Referendum 74 said they hope a yes vote will send a strong message to the federal government that same-sex marriage is something the people support.
Same-sex marriage is legal in six other states and in the District of Columbia. Those rules were passed by legislative bodies or established through a court ruling, not through a public vote.
Debating the issue
Local opponents of same-sex marriage rights in Washington state say same-sex partners in a domestic partnership already have the same rights as married heterosexual couples, and that the best family environment for a child is in a household with one mother and one father. Some opponents have framed the ballot measure as an attack on the traditional idea of marriage and on religious institutions that don't support same-sex marriage, and some have said that many same-sex couples don't want to get married.
"There are gay and lesbian people who very much want the freedom to marry, who are in long-term relationships and who have made the commitment in taking care of one another in good times and bad," Basic Rights Oregon Executive Director Jeana Frazzini said in response to those arguments. "The freedom to marry is critically important to them. … Fundamentally, what the community shares is a desire to be treated equally under the law."
Frazzini said gay and lesbian couples are not equal under the law, particularly under federal law, and that changing the law in Washington state brings the nation one step closer to change at the federal level.
"In this country, we have a system for recognizing and supporting the commitment that two loving adults make to one another, and it's called marriage," she said. "Right now, gay and lesbian couples are shut out from the freedom to marry."
She also said research suggesting that children do better with a mother and a father "has been thoroughly debunked. What we know is kids do best in loving, stable homes, and that one of the best ways to provide that stability is to recognize the relationship of their parents. … 'Marriage' says we're family like no other word."
The same-sex marriage law passed this winter includes protections for churches, temples and other religious institutions that decline to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, as well as protections for faith-based universities that decline to allow same-sex marriage on campus. The law also allows faith-based nonprofits to refuse adoption services for same-sex couples who want to adopt a child.
Wedding-related businesses, such as photographers and wedding planners, would not be shielded from anti-discrimination laws if they declined to work for a same-sex couple, even if they cite religious reasons.
Although some religious groups do not support same-sex marriage, a number of faith-based groups support approving Referendum 74, same-sex marriage proponents say. One such group is Vancouver's First Congregational United Church of Christ, which recently organized a march from Vancouver to Olympia in support of same-sex marriage.
Going door-to-door or talking about marriage rights over the phone isn't Sam MacKenzie's forte.
Instead, the 32-year-old Vancouver artist has been advocating for a yes vote on Referendum 74 by launching a public art campaign to show that love comes in many forms. She and her partner, Kelly Keigwin, 45, handcrafted more than 800 ceramic heart ornaments to hang around the Vancouver area.
The hearts include a website address that brings people to the couple's blog, called "Love is a Radical Act." The blog's web address is http://loveisaradicalact.com.
"This is my way of encouraging people to be OK with any kind of family unit that is loving and supportive," MacKenzie said. "That's why I'm doing what I'm doing."
MacKenzie and Keigwin hope to get married in December, if Referendum 74 is approved by voters this fall. The couple has been together for more than two years and have decided against becoming domestic partners or having a marriage ceremony that isn't recognized by the state.
"I've always been of the mind that I would not get married unless it was a legal marriage," MacKenzie said, adding that the couple's friends and family already know how committed they are to each other. "It's about the rights we would get from getting married."
MacKenzie said the domestic partnership law in Washington state does not truly offer her the same rights that heterosexual couples have. Domestic partners, for example, have to carry a card on them at all times that proves they are in a union with their partner, she said.
"That's a different standard to hold someone to," she said.