Want to know who signed petitions to repeal a new domestic partnership law in Washington state giving gays and lesbians most of the same rights as traditional married couples? Easy. Go down to the state archives office and buy a DVD. It'll cost you $15.
Even as backers of the referendum filed an appeal to try to get the release halted -- fearing that job reprisals, vandalism and death threats could be the result -- the state on Tuesday was giving out lists of the 137,500 names to anyone who wanted them.
“There has not been a stampede on these so far,” Brian Zylstra, deputy communications director for the secretary of state, told The Times. State officials said about 30 DVDs had been handed out by midday Tuesday.
No violence has been reported. But that hasn't stopped opponents of the domestic partnership law from going urgently back to court to block further releases. Because the fight now is not just about those who signed the 2009 Referendum 71 petition, said Protect Marriage Washington lawyer Stephen Pidgeon. It's about getting ready for the next battle -- a move to legalize gay marriage.
“The long and the short of it is, we're not finished in the state of Washington,” Pidgeon said in an interview. “This was a domestic partnership act, and now what's coming is same-sex marriage. This was, if you will, a preliminary skirmish.”
For a skirmish, it was a big one, reaching at one point the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the R-71 petitions were not exempt from Washington's public disclosure law, which, unlike California's, requires that names on petitions be made public.
The high court left room for those who wanted to repeal the law to argue that there were special circumstances that made their signers particularly vulnerable and exempt from disclosure.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma rejected that, though, in a ruling Monday that concluded there was no “reasonable probability” of reprisals, threats or harassment as a result of the release of names from petitions signed two years ago.
Protect Marriage Washington "has not supplied competent evidence or adequate authority to support its claim that the R-71 signers constitute a fringe organization with unpopular or unorthodox beliefs or one that is seeking to further ideas that have been 'historically and pervasively rejected and vilified by both this country’s government and its citizens,' " as required by the legal standard, the judge concluded.
Washington's "everything but marriage" law substantially expanded rights in domestic partnerships to include issues like adoption, child support, pensions and other public-employee benefits. The vote on the referendum in 2009 marked the first time a statewide vote has upheld a law protecting rights for same-sex partners.
Washington's secretary of state, Sam Reed, who has long argued that the state law requires disclosure, called the court's ruling “a victory for transparency and open disclosure in our state's referendum and initiative process.”
“When voters sign petitions, they are trying to change state law. We believe that changing state law should be open to public view,” Reed said in a statement.
Anne Levinson, chairwoman of Washington Families Standing Together, which opposed attempts to repeal the “everything but marriage” law, also applauded the judge's findings.
“Had the court agreed that these ballot measure petitions could be kept secret because the referendum’s sponsors were bothered by some who voiced opposition to their point of view, it would have set a terrible precedent for future elections,” she said.
But those arguing to keep the signatures secret said Settle appeared to discount threats that were more than theoretical. Lawyers said they documented a number of cases in which signers whose names became public were subjected to death threats, harassment and vandalism.
One candidate for state Senate received a telephone call hours before she was quoted in a newspaper saying she had signed the petition, Pidgeon said.
“The whole family was in the dining room, and her son fielded the call, an anonymous call. The guy said, 'I'm going to kill you and your whole family,' " he said. “We had one guy out in Spokane who was standing on a corner with a sign supporting the referendum. A woman stopped her car, walked over, picked up a stick and hit him over the head with it.
“People around here need to understand the bullying tactics of the homosexual left,” he said. “There's no other group like it. If a pastor talks about alcoholism, alcoholics don't get together and threaten to kill him. The only people that show up and want to burn the church down and kill the pastor are the homosexuals.”
But Levinson said opponents were using “exaggerated tales of victimization” to “hide from public view and to take away the ability of those who stand up against them to protect themselves and their fellow citizens.”
“The irony should not go unnoticed that these right-wing groups promote divisive measures and then demand a special right to secrecy because the strong disagreement that follows makes them uncomfortable,” she said.
Settle made it clear he was not discounting concerns about the increasing acrimony of the debate over same-sex marriage, which is likely to be introduced in the Washington Legislature next year.
“While plaintiffs have not shown serious and widespread threats, harassment or reprisals against the signers of R-71, or even that such activity would be reasonably likely to occur upon the publication of their names and contact information, they have developed substantial evidence that the public advocacy of traditional marriage as the exclusive definition of marriage, or the expansion of rights for same-sex partners, has engendered hostility in this state, and risen to violence elsewhere, against some who have engaged in that advocacy,” the judge said.
“This should concern every citizen and deserves the full attention of law enforcement when the line gets crossed and an advocate becomes the victim of a crime or is subject to a genuine threat of violence.”
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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Claudia Wheatley cheers as she and partner Danni Sabia wait with other gay and lesbian couples to register as domestic partners in Olympia, Wash. That victory, in 2007, gave registered couples such rights as hospital visitation, the ability to authorize autopsies and the ability to inherit in the absence of a will. A 2009 law gave gays and lesbians even more rights. The latter was the one targeted by a referendum. Credit: Elaine Thompson / Associated Press