Gay marriage issue can wait, say Referendum 71 partisans

OLYMPIA — Those who opposed each other on Referendum 71 agree on one thing: Don’t look for gay marriage on a ballot in 2010.

And don’t expect the Legislature to make it legal or a judge to decide the issue.

Leaders on both sides say it’s too soon to revisit the issue.

“I think we have to be engaged in a prolonged conversation with the people of Washington before we can achieve marriage equality. I think 2010 is too soon,” said Joshua Friedes, manager of the Approve R-71 campaign.

That’s fine with Arlington’s Larry Stickney, a leader of Protect Marriage Washington, which unsuccessfully sought rejection of the measure.

“Yes, they won. But while they won, I think they need to slow down and take into consideration that they barely got a majority,” Stickney said. “I am going to encourage them to halt their efforts, but why would they want to listen to me?”

Referendum 71 let voters approve or reject a law passed earlier this year by the Legislature to give gay and lesbian couples equal footing with married spouses under state law. It expands the state’s domestic partnership law, which also covers heterosexual couples in which at least one partner is 62 years of age or older.

On hold since July 26, the law will take effect when the election is certified Dec. 3.

Its approval is a mathematical certainty even with tens of thousands of votes to be counted. It led 52 percent to 48 percent Friday with the margin of difference of about 65,000 votes. Many untallied ballots are in King County, where two-thirds of the electorate are approving it.

Throughout the campaign, foes argued the law targeted by the referendum is the last stepping-stone to gay marriage.

Gay rights activists countered the debate on marriage is a conversation for the future. The election, they said, was about preserving a law giving same-sex couples vital legal protections and rights.

That future is now with both sides examining vote results and pondering options in the Legislature, on the ballot and in the courts.

Proponents know they must build support in those rural areas before a marriage measure gets pushed to a statewide vote. As of Friday, voters in 29 counties were rejecting the measure — and in some places, by more than 70 percent

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, introduced a bill legalizing marriage for same-sex couples last January. He said he’s not expecting it to receive a hearing in 2010.

“The closeness of the results indicates we have a lot of work to do before we move marriage legislatively or on the ballot,” said. Murray, who authored the law put before voters.

“The Legislature has done its part,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “Now it’s time for the gay and lesbian community to take the next step and talk to the residents of Washington on what marriage equality means and are we ready for that.

“We can’t make civil rights and marriage equality a King County or Puget Sound issue only,” he said.

Stickney said another reason the Democrat-controlled Legislature won’t take up the issue in 2010 is they fear it could hurt those members facing re-election in areas that opposed the referendum.

Using the ballot is also not an option under consideration by the religious and social conservatives, he said. They may want a constitutional ban on gay marriage, but state law bars such changes from being made by initiative.

Both sides say they aren’t planning to use the courts to press their cause, though they think their opponents will.

Stickney, during the campaign and again Friday, predicted an effort to win gay marriage by judicial fiat would be attempted within a year because that’s been the strategy that’s worked in Massachusetts and other states.

In Washington, the goal would be overturning the state’s 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The state Supreme Court upheld this law in 2006 but Stickney expects a new challenge is coming.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult to stop if the courts weigh in and overturn DOMA,” he said.

Friedes said Stickney was repeating one of the “scare tactics” used in the campaign. In reality, it’s Protect Marriage Washington that might try to the court route but Friedes said he didn’t think they’d “have a legal leg to stand on.”

Alex Hays, executive director of Mainstream Republicans, which backed approval, said the two sides need to pause and recharge in 2010 while the new law sinks in.

“It is only a step toward gay marriage,” he said of the election. “This is going to be long term. It is not going to happen as immediately as 2010.”

Everett attorney Steve Pidgeon shares that view.

“I think the voters were able to vote their conscience. Let’s live with it for a while and see what it looks like and how it plays out,” said Pidgeon, adding he is not speaking for his client, Protect Marriage Washington.

In time, he said, people will see if students in public schools are taught gay marriage is acceptable and if the state incurs unexpected economic costs from implementing the law.

“We’ll just have to see,” he said.

Friedes said few will notice any changes.

“The radical right has always talked about this parade of horribles if we have this domestic partnership law,” he said. “Now people will see.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623, jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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