by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
The deadline for Protect Washington Families and Faith and Freedom Network to file their signatures with the Washington Secretary of State is quickly approaching. The coalition of conservative organizations seeking to place Referendum 71 to repeal domestic partnerships on the November ballot claim they will have all 120,577 signatures on Saturday, July 25.
However, as of July 23, they would not publicly declare the exact number of signatures they have gathered.
The Washington Secretary of State office will remain open on Saturday to receive the signatures. If the coalition files the correct number of signatures required - an estimated 150,000, including a cushion - the secretary's office will then go to work verifying them. If 120,577 are valid, the fate of same-sex domestic partners will lay in the hands of Washington voters this November.
Stephen Pidgeon, an Everett, Washington lawyer who represents the anti-Gay petition sponsors, said the coalition's gathering efforts have gone well. During a July 22 interview, he said there has been a lot of momentum and they expect to reach their goal.
"I wish we could give you the number, but we don't know it yet," Pidgeon told SGN. "The volunteers [Protect Washington Families] are in the process of gathering while we speak."
Faith and Freedom Network declined interview requests by SGN.
Equal Rights Washington (ERW) said in a July 22 press release that they've received reports of paid signature gathering starting about three weeks ago, as well as reports that people are being misled into signing the petition by being told it "supports LGBT civil rights."
Josh Friedes, campaign manager for Washington Families Standing Together (WAFST), said that Wal-Mart stores were allowing the opposition's paid signature gatherers to canvas customers for signatures, while declining to allow Decline to Sign activity at their stores. He said their actions are not shocking, considering "Wal-Mart has a very low score from Human Rights Campaign on equality."
Eight weeks ago, ERW and WAFST put together a strong and multi-level Decline to Sign campaign in hopes of thwarting the opposition's attempts to roll back the domestic partnership law Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law in May, 2009. The two organizations began working side by side to ensure the LGBT community and their supporters were not tricked into signing a Referendum 71 petition.
"People from all parts of our state want to support their friends and neighbors. They are very worried that families in their communities will lose important legal and financial protections if the law is repealed," said Freides. "We have had over 40,000 Washingtonians, from every county in the state, pledge their support of the domestic partnership law."
In only eight weeks, Freides said, over 110 organizations - faith-based groups, labor unions, seniors, and communities of color, children's organizations, and statewide and local groups - joined together to form the WAFST coalition.
"It's quite powerful to see that groups who represent such a broad cross section of the state are united in the common goal of saving the domestic partnership law," he said.
OPPOSITION STANDS AGAINST DECLINE TO SIGN EFFORTS
The opposition told SGN they understand the hard work WAFST has done to keep Referendum 71 off the November ballot.
"We don't want to underestimate their [WAFST] efforts. It was like pushing a large rock up a tall hill, we know that," said Pidgeon. "But on the other hand, because it [Domestic Partnership Law] is making such a large shift in the social fabric of Washington State, we know that the voters should have the right to vote on that sort of change - it should not be done just by the Legislature."
He said the statute will not stand because its nature is not a behavioral issue, "it is a policy issue."
"This was a broad overreach by the State government where it really has no jurisdiction," Pidgeon told SGN. "What the State touches, it poisons - and this would be no exception."
In 2007, the Legislature established the domestic partnership registry, granting registered same-sex couples the rights to make health care decisions for a sick partner, visit a partner in the hospital, to consent to an autopsy and manage some property issues. In 2008, the Legislature extended the rights to include community property rights, probate rights, joint responsibility for debts and other protections. The 2009 Domestic Partnership Expansion Bill ensures that all Washington families are treated equally by providing the same rights and responsibilities to same-sex domestic partners as straight marriages. Additionally, the 2009 law allows for death benefits for the partners of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty, pension benefits for partners of teachers and other public employees, the right to adopt a partner's child without paying for an expensive home study, the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner and an easier process for drawing up a health care proxy or durable power of attorney.
REMOVING RIGHTS "WOULD HURT US ALL"
"The people involved do not want to express ill will to the Gay community - I want to make that clear," Pidgeon said. "We are hopeful that, ultimately, things will work out for the better for the people in that [LGBT] lifestyle. I don't believe this particular endeavor is the best thing for that community."
"But," he adds, "ultimately, it is not up for me to decide. This is an issue the people of Washington State should be able to decide with a vote."
Kathy Reim, a retired public school teacher and Bellingham PFLAG member, disagrees.
"No parent wants to leave this world knowing that their children have fewer rights then they had," Reim said. "Taking away rights wouldn't just hurt Gay and Lesbian people - it would hurt us all."
She said as a mother of a daughter who is Lesbian, she cannot imagine a parent ever feeling secure knowing that his or her child is not provided the same protections and opportunities as others.
Numerous organizations representing communities of color also are showing support for Washington families. "The Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizen League is proud to support all Washington state families," said the League's president, Dawn Rego. "Our community suffered greatly when Japanese Americans were denied civil rights during WWII, so we must work to ensure that there is justice and equality for all."
Josh Friedes says everyone recognizes that it is far easier to qualify a referendum for the ballot than an initiative, because only half the number of signatures must be gathered. He said that given the important rights and protections that are at stake for Washington families, hundreds of organizations came together believing it was necessary - even before the signatures are submitted - to start educating the public about the important protections provided by the domestic partnership law, and the families who will be harmed if the law were repealed.
"If this ends on Saturday, then what we have done is provided the opportunity to build a broad coalition to support LGBT rights, a successful broad-based effort that we haven't seen in a number of years," said Friedes. "We've proven at this early stage that if there is the need to organize and wage a successful ballot campaign, we can."
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