Referendum 71 is the biggest civil rights issue placed in the hands of Washington voters since an anti-affirmative action measure reached the ballot a decade ago.
It was 1998 when voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 200 and barred the state from giving women and minorities preferential treatment in hiring, contracting and college enrollment.
That same year legislators enacted the Defense of Marriage Act enshrining in Washington state law that marriage could only be between a man and a woman.
In so doing, lawmakers stoked the fires of a gay rights movement that has since won several hard-fought legislative battles but faces a threat of a major setback this election.
Referendum 71 leaves the decision to voters to keep or discard a law that would recognize that same-sex couples have all the rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples under state law, except the ability to be legally wed.
“The issues it raises are fairness and equal rights under the law for families who cannot marry,” said Doug Honig, communications director for the ACLU, one of 251 organizations pushing for the measure’s approval.
Though the law in question also applies to unmarried heterosexual senior couples, most of the roughly 6,200 state-registered domestic partnerships in Washington involve gays and lesbians.
“We’re basically asking 90 percent of the state what the other 10 percent get in terms of access to basic rights and benefits,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “For 12,000 people it means a lot. For everyone else, you won’t notice.”
Those seeking to toss out the law say the matter is about privileges not rights.
“If it was a civil rights issue it would apply equally to every Washington resident,” said Stephen Pidgeon of Everett, an attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the group that petitioned to put the referendum on the ballot to allow voters the final say.
“It applies only to a class of people who are homosexual or who are over 62 and choose not to marry. Only they can enjoy the ‘rights’ of domestic partnership prescribed in this law,” he said.
Larry Stickney of Arlington, campaign manager for Protect Marriage Washington, obtained the first signature on a Referendum 71 petition on June 5. Fifty days later he delivered signatures of enough valid voters to secure a spot on the ballot.
The referendum targets Senate Bill 5688 which soared through the Democratic-controlled Legislature and was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire on May 18.
It is the latest upgrade of the state’s domestic partnership law, but it’s been on hold pending the outcome of the election.
In 2007, the state defined domestic partnerships as same-sex couples over the age of 18 and heterosexual couples with at least one partner who is 62 or older. A registry was created and couples had to sign up to be eligible for any rights or benefits offered by the state.
That first year, a few benefits were extended, including the right to visit a partner in a hospital and inherit their property.
Last year, the Legislature added more rights and this year’s legislation adds the term of domestic partnership into every statute dealing with married couples.
Under this targeted 2009 law, for example, a person can use sick leave to care for a seriously ill partner, receive pension benefits if their partner is a teacher or state employee and receive wages and benefits if a domestic partner is injured on the job.
The law does not erase or alter the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet, in the eyes of the state, it makes same-sex domestic partners indistinguishable from married couples hence its nickname, “everything but marriage.”
A vote for Referendum 71 means you support the law and want it activated; a vote to reject the measure means you want the law repealed.
Protect Marriage Washington leaders want to convince voters the law codifies gay marriage and clears a path for formal legalization in the future.
“We believe that it is ultimately same-sex marriage,” Stickney said. “I think it’s the biggest fraud every perpetrated in the state of Washington because we’re told it’s not marriage, and it is.”
Marriage isn’t the only concern of opponents.
“It will dramatically affect what is taught in public schools” about the construct of families since there would be no legal difference between homosexual and heterosexual couples, said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Lynnwood-based Family Policy Institute of Washington.
While the right of marriage is a holy grail for gay rights, supporters of Referendum 71 say it doesn’t deliver the prize.
And as far as the threatened effects in education, supporters said the claims are without merit.
“This is all about the core rights that are important to all families,” Liias said. “The issue of who should get married under state law is a debate for a different day.”
With ballots reaching voters this week, the two campaigns are starting to ratchet up their outreach.
Those working to approve the referendum enjoy a huge edge in fundraising and spending.
Washington Families Standing Together had raised nearly $1.6 million and spent about two-thirds of it as of Friday, according to records filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Much of that is expected to be spent on television commercials.
Protect Marriage Washington had collected about $210,000, though only $60,000 of that is related to the campaign. The rest is donated legal services as the group has been fighting the state to keep the names of petition signers sealed. Much of their cash has gone into fliers that are being passed out through churches.
Last week, Backholm’s group gave $200,000 to a new political organ, Vote Reject on R-71. It’s paying for radio commercials.
While public opinion surveys in the state show wide support for domestic partnerships, polling for this measure shows it to be close and both sides say they are confident of succeeding.
“The intensity is great but how wide is the intensity,” said Dave Mortenson, the strategist guiding the Vote Reject on R-71. “I think this will be decided by the majority of the people in the middle.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.