By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
TACOMA — Thousands of people who signed petitions to repeal a law expanding the rights of same-sex couples will not have their identities disclosed and put online — for now.
A federal judge on Wednesday barred Secretary of State Sam Reed from divulging the roughly 138,500 names on Referendum 71 petitions, a move that will delay a Seattle group’s plan for posting them on the Internet.
U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle granted a temporary restraining order sought by signature-gatherers who contend releasing the names will violate signers’ constitutional rights and have a chilling effect on political speech. A hearing is set for Sept. 3.
“This is a great day. We want to do all we can to protect our people,” said Larry Stickney of Arlington, leader of Protect Marriage Washington, which gathered the signatures and sought court protection of them.
Wednesday’s hearing was a one-sided affair.
Everett attorney Stephen Pidgeon argued on behalf of Protect Marriage Washington. No one from the state Attorney General’s Office, which represents Reed’s agency, was present to contest the request.
The leader of the group seeking the names did not attend, though he may try to join as an interested party in the coming days.
“It’s up to the state to defend the public disclosure laws so that we can continue to have open government,” said Brian Murphy, director of Whosigned.org.
Referendum 71 targets the new law giving same-sex couples registered as domestic partnerships the same rights and privileges under state law as married heterosexual couples with the exception of legal marriage.
Known as “everything but marriage” by its authors, the law adds domestic partnerships into a slew of statutes covering such areas as adoption, child support rights and obligations and pensions.
Organizers of the Referendum 71 campaign turned in petitions Saturday preventing the law from taking effect Sunday.
If 120,577 of the signatures are valid voters, the measure will go on the November ballot. If not, the law will go into force. Election workers have begun validating signatures this week and could finish by mid-August.
Whosigned.org filed a request for the names Tuesday and would have received them by Monday — had the court not acted.
Murphy announced in June he intends to post them in a manner people can search through to learn if friends or family members signed the petition.
That prospect caused some people not to sign petitions out of fear and others to seek out a petition carrier out of anger, Stickney said.
In court filings released Wednesday, lawyers for Stickney’s group contend the First Amendment provides a right to participate anonymously in politics and the act of signing a petition should be treated like casting a ballot.
Not protecting the names will leave signers vulnerable to attack from those who disagree with them, the suit contends.
“By publicly disseminating the names of individuals signing a referendum petition, individuals and organizations hope to make it personally, economically, and politically unpopular to advocate a position that would seek to preserve the sanctity of marriage, as traditionally defined as between one man and one woman,” according to the filing.
Stickney said he’s been the target of personal attacks and has feared his home might be targeted for damage by opponents. He said he worries others will endure a similar fate if their names are widely known.
Murphy, who supports the new domestic partnership law, said his intention is to promote constructive dialogue.
“I find the claims of harassment to be very empty,” he said. “We have public disclosure today and I think the people of Washington will use that information responsibly.”
Posting names in this manner originated with KnowThyNeighbor.org in Massachusetts in 2005. Two men, one gay and one straight, formed the organization in response to an initiative drive to ban same-sex marriage. They opposed the measure and posted 148,000 names of signers.
There have been similar efforts in Florida in 2006 and Arkansas in April of this year.