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Washington ballot best chance for foes of same-sex marriage

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

Opponents seeking to overturn Washington's newly signed same-sex marriage legislation may not have the governor or the Legislature on their side, but they do have history.

It's a matter of record that voters always have rejected gay marriage whenever the issue has appeared on state ballots. Days after Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, signed a bill making Washington the seventh state to recognize same-sex marriage, opponents this week launched campaigns for two proposed ballot measures aimed at overturning the law.

The first measure is a referendum to repeal the gay-marriage law. The other is an initiative that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Joseph Backholm, executive director of Preserve Marriage Washington, which is sponsoring the repeal effort, said in an interview that he is optimistic about the measure's chances.

"I do think we'll ultimately prevail on this. In 31 states, the voters have decided on this, and the voters always decide marriage is between one man and one woman," said Mr. Backholm, "even in relatively liberal states like California and Maine."

Thirty-one states have passed voter referendums that define marriage as involving one man and one woman. California and Maine have overturned same-sex marriage laws through ballot measures.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, lawmakers in New Jersey's Assembly passed a gay-marriage bill on a 42-33 vote, following approval Monday by the state Senate. The vote was largely symbolic however, as Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has promised to veto the bill, saying the state's voters should decide the issue.

Washington on Monday joined the ranks of states and the District of Columbia that have recognized same-sex marriage. In each of those states, gay marriage was made legal either by the legislature or the courts - not by popular vote.

Challengers must circulate petitions to qualify the issue for the ballot in Washington. The referendum needs 120,577 valid signatures by June 6 to secure a spot on the November ballot, while proponents of the initiative, named I-1192, must collect more than 240,000 signatures by July 6.

Supporters of same-sex marriage are girding for battle. "The national religious right is ready to stop marriage equality in WA," Washington United for Marriage said in an online fundraising plea. "Take a stand."

Despite the track record on the ballot for same-sex marriage, the Washington law has several factors in its favor. No state has ever run two proposals against gay marriage on the same ballot.

Analysts say the result is likely to be confusion because the referendum would be pushing for a "no" vote while the initiative would ask voters to say "yes."

The sponsor of I-1192, Protect Marriage Washington 2012, could not be reached for comment. Leading the campaign is Stephen Pidgeon, also a candidate for Washington attorney general.

"It could be a little confusing," said Mr. Backholm. "If the referendum failed and the initiative passed, what does the court do with that? It would be difficult to unwind."

Strategists from the campaigns are discussing how to proceed, he said, and they might get behind one measure instead of two. If that happens, the referendum is likely to emerge as the consensus pick, given that it needs about half as many valid signatures to qualify.

"The threshold for the initiative to get on the ballot is much higher - it needs 8 percent of the vote from the last governor's election," said Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based free-market think tank. "The referendum has a lower bar, so the people challenging the gay-marriage law will almost certainly qualify."

The referendum campaign would have to overcome the liberal leanings of Washington voters, who have elected a Democratic governor, Legislature and two U.S. senators. At the same time, voters have been known to display a conservative streak on issues such as gun control and taxes.

"Washington is deceptively not liberal in some areas," said Mr. Guppy. "Gun control has no traction here at all. Still, this is a pretty hot-button social issue, so it would be pretty hard to predict which way it would go."

What polling there is shows Washington voters are split. A survey taken Feb. 7-9 by Elway Research for Cedar Park Church found that 51 percent of voters agreed and 45 percent disagreed with the statement, "Should gay and lesbian couples have the same legal right to marry as straight couples?"

When told that the state passed an "everything-but-marriage" domestic-partners law in 2009, however, the number in favor of keeping marriage as between a man and a woman rose to 58 percent. Thirty-five percent continued to favor same-sex marriage.

The third question asked voters how they would feel about same-sex marriage if meant "teaching homosexuality to children" in schools. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they would oppose the law, while 30 percent said they would support it.

In an email explaining the poll findings, Cedar Park Church pastor Joseph B. Fuiten concluded that "[w]e need to make every effort to inform Washington voters of the actual state of equality."

"Then we need to ask them to think about the future," said Mr. Fuiten. "Once people know the facts and understand the consequences of gay marriage, it is easy to understand why there is opposition to redefining marriage."

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