Helen Lally met Laura Jaurequi at a Sunday church service in Seattle where they struck up a conversation that lasted four hours, through bagels, coffee and a long walk.
By the end, they knew they’d be spending more time together.
It’s now 16 years and counting for the Edmonds women, who find themselves in reach of achieving a long-desired goal for their relationship: marriage.
“Marriage is a rite of passage,” Jaurequi said. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate our love in front of our family and our friends. It’s a public acknowledgement of our commitment to one another.”
But their ability to get legally hitched depends on what voters decide on Referendum 74.
This ballot measure asks voters to either approve or reject the state’s gay marriage law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year. That law is on hold pending the outcome of the election.
If a simple majority approves the referendum, couples like Lally and Jaurequi can begin exchanging vows this holiday season. If it is rejected, they won’t lose any of the rights, privileges and responsibilities they have as a registered domestic partnership.
More than $12 million has been spent in a battle that may boil down to what voters feel marriage means and whether allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will change that meaning.
Opponents of the measure fear marriage will be permanently scarred and lose its meaning if couples of the same sex can legally wed.
Marriage, say Chuck and Nancy Whitfield of Monroe, should only be between a man and a woman if it is to continue to serve as the bedrock on which strong families are built and stable societies supported.
“To me, marriage is the foundation for society that gives us the best opportunity to thrive and prosper,” said Nancy Whitfield. “We need to protect that. There is no issue that’s more significant to our culture than the protection of our traditional family.”
For Lally and Jaurequi, they say there is no issue more significant in their lives. Earlier this month, Lally, 56, an insurance company executive, and Jaurequi, 53, a department manager at the University of Washington, hosted a fundraiser for the pro-gay marriage campaign at their home.
“It got me more charged,” Lally said. “For me, it’s a right to be able to decide with whom I want to be with to the end of my life. My parents were married 53 years before my father died. At my father’s funeral, my mother sat me down and said, ‘Be glad you found each other.”
She and Jaurequi spoke of marriage as uniquely special — just as the Whitfields had.
“I’m not looking to take away anything they have and enjoy,” Lally said. “I just want to recognize and enjoy what I have with Laura.”
• • •
Chuck and Nancy Whitfield met at a Saturday night dance in Monroe and pretty much fell in love that evening. They’ve been married 28 years and raised three children.
They said their religious faith teaches them God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, with procreation one of its signature purposes.
With gay marriage looming as a threat to undermine those teachings, Chuck Whitfield, a 55-year-old retired insurance salesman, gathered signatures to help put Referendum 74 the ballot.
Now he’s a volunteer coordinator in Snohomish County for Preserve Marriage Washington. When he encounters potential voters, he often explains how same-sex couples enjoy all the rights and benefits of married couples under state law today, and that won’t change if they repeal the gay marriage law.
“It is not about marriage equality,” he said he tells them. “It is about changing marriage.”
“When I think about marriage, I think about all the marriages in my family,” he said. “My grandparents were married 73 years, my parents 55, and me and my wife are at 28 years. Through each of those marriages, children were conceived and are part of this heritage of who I am.”
Legalizing gay marriage will open a Pandora’s box of potential conflicts in society and schools where the consequences may be greatest, said Nancy Whitfield, 52.
“Parents are worried about what their children will be learning in school and that they won’t have a voice in what is going into the ears of their children,” she said. “Are they going to be told that even though they are a princess they can marry a princess some day?”
The Whitfields’ views are driven by their values, they said.
If seated across the table from a couple like Lally and Jaurequi, Chuck Whitfield said he would make the point that it’s not about them at all.
“I would say we love you and we are not judging your relationship but we feel marriage should continue in society to be for a mother and a father,” Chuck Whitfield said.
• • •
In the early morning hours of July 23, 2007, Kevin and Johnny McCollum-Blair traveled from their Everett home to Olympia to be part of history.
At 8 a.m., same-sex couples could enroll with the state as a domestic partnership and gain legal recognition for their relationship. The McCollum-Blairs were the seventh couple to register and the first from Snohomish County.
“It was a big step. We knew it was the equal rights we could get right now so we took it,” recalled Johnny McCollum-Blair, 43, who holds down three jobs, including one at the Tulalip casino.
Today there are 9,842 registered partnerships. Gay and lesbian couples comprise the vast majority. The law also applies to unmarried heterosexual couples in which at least one partner is 62 or older. Lawmakers did so to aid seniors who risk losing pension rights and Social Security benefits if they marry.
Practical reasons guided the McCollum-Blairs to sign up. The law provided a right to visit one’s partner in the hospital and power of attorney if something happened.
Both men said registering marked an initial stride to what they really wanted, marriage, which they view as a final validation of the commitment they’ve made since their relationship began in Everett in 1997.
“Everybody thinks about one day getting married, settling down and spending the golden years together with someone they love,” said Kevin McCollum-Blair, 48, who last year overcame a bout with lung and brain cancer.
“I want to be able to go up to somebody and say I’m married,” Johnny McCollum-Blair said.
While they’re confident voters will uphold the gay marriage law, they know the power of the arguments and the passion of those opposing it.
Given a chance to chat with people who oppose the measure, Kevin McCollum-Blair said they’d begin with a question: “If the government told you who you could and could not marry, how would you feel?”
• • •
Kandice and Aaron Wartes of Lake Stevens met as students at Shoreline Community College and married young. She was 20 and he was 21.
It’s turned out pretty much as they both envision marriage should.
“Marriage means a lifelong covenant and promise to each other, including the hope to have children to raise with the values as they were modeled for us,” said Aaron Wartes, now 42.
Today they’re proud parents of four grown children. They enjoy their jobs — she teaches music, he’s a financial adviser. They’re regulars at Damascus Road Church in Marysville.
They aren’t politically active and are not involved in the Referendum 74 campaign. They plan to vote against it — and hope the majority of state voters do the same — because they firmly believe marriage should continue to be legally defined as between a man and woman.
“The way marriage has always been has proven to be the best for children,” said Kandice Wartes, 41. “Children are best served when they are raised by a mother and father.”
The couple doesn’t fear their family will be hurt by the gay marriage law. By the same token, they don’t see any benefits, either, and, on balance, would like not to see things change.
“We have friends who are gay. People we work with are gay. We have no problem with their lifestyle. If they want to make a private lifelong covenant, I’m all for that,” Kandice said. “But as far as changing the legal status of marriage, I’m not comfortable.”
For her husband, marriage would lose meaning and value if it loses its historic construct as between a man and a woman.
“It won’t be special anymore,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.