A Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday, March 13 that a proposed referendum seeking to overturn a new law legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington will not contain the phrase “redefine marriage."
Judge Thomas McPhee was charged with finalizing language for the ballot title and summary of Referendum 74 after both sides of the debate challenged the original wording by Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna. McPhee's language is final and cannot be appealed.
Preserve Marriage Washington, which filed R-74, can now start circulating petitions to collect signatures. The law allowing same-sex marriage was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire last month and takes effect June 7. However, if the backers of R-74 collect the more than 120,577 valid voter signatures needed by June 6, the law will be put on hold pending the outcome of a November vote.
“We are excited to move on with the process,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, one of the groups supporting the referendum.
Marriage equality supporters opposed the original ballot wording that described the new law as one that “would redefine marriage to allow same-sex couples to marry.”
Washington United for Marriage, a coalition that supports the new law, said “redefine” is a loaded term and a talking point used by anti-gay marriage groups.
Zach Silk, a spokesman for Washington United for Marriage, said they wanted to make sure that the language was fair and easy for voters to understand.
The judge “removed the most politically-charged language and made the language clear,” he said.
Backholm said that while Preserve Washington would have preferred different language than what the judge finalized, “ultimately, the public understands that this bill redefines marriage and they will ultimately decide if that's what they want to do.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, who is running against McKenna for governor, accused him of “playing politics with marriage.”
A spokeswoman for McKenna called that charge “ridiculous” and noted that both sides challenged the initial wording at some point.
“We try to put forth the most fair and neutral language as possible,” said spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie. “If in fact he were working to appease one side or the other, you would think it wouldn't be challenged by both sides.”
The Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which was involved in ballot measures that overturned same-sex marriage in California and Maine, has promised to work with Preserve Marriage Washington to qualify the referendum to overturn the new law.
Another effort seeking to overturn same-sex marriage is still ongoing.
Initiative 1192 was filed in January by Everett attorney Stephen Pidgeon, seeking to reaffirm marriage as “between one man and one woman.” Pidgeon says that he is carrying on with his initiative effort in spite of the referendum. To qualify for the November ballot, he must submit at least 241,153 signatures of valid registered voters by July 6. He said Tuesday that he has already collected “thousands” of signatures.
Washington state has had domestic partnership laws since 2007, and in 2009, passed an “everything but marriage” expansion of that law, which was ultimately upheld by voters after a referendum challenge.
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. Maryland legalized same-sex marriage this year as well, though opponents there are promising to challenge it with a ballot measure.