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Equal Rights Washington lays groundwork for 2010
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Equal Rights Washington lays groundwork for 2010

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

Equal Rights Washington (ERW), the state's LGBT advocacy organization credited with laying the groundwork for the successful Approve Referendum 71 Campaign, recently spoke with Seattle Gay News to outline their 2010 agenda.

It is no secret that the reality of the perilous fiscal situation Washington lawmakers face is the dominating issue in Olympia. It should come as no surprise that, although a same-sex marriage bill has been filed, it is more ceremonial than moveable. Still, ERW Political Director Josh Friedes says that, by filing the bill, it makes clear the LGBT community's resolve on continuing to discuss and ultimately secure marriage equality in Washington State.

To that end, Friedes says the primary mission for ERW in 2010 will be an education campaign. "We are committed to educating the electorate and legislature on the importance of marriage equality. The Approve Referendum 71 Campaign helped voters understand the difference between marriage and domestic partnership. Those efforts, coupled with a statewide education campaign, will help bring domestic partnership supporters to support marriage equality."

Friedes says the 2010 Gay marriage bill is not expected to pass the current session in Olympia because ERW and the bill's supporters will press forward only when they believe a win is possible, both legislatively and at the ballot box. "We aren't there yet," Friedes admits, "but we are getting closer with each passing day."

THE IMPORTANCE OF VOTER EDUCATION
"Voters remain ambivalent about marriage equality. As it stands, there just isn't a full understanding as to why domestic partnerships do not meet the needs of Gay families," he told SGN. "An education campaign is important because some of our would-be supporters have a lot of unanswered questions."

For example, he said, a lot of voters who care about LGBT rights still have concerns about whether or not kids of Gay and Lesbian couples grow up well-adjusted. Voters still don't understand that if same-sex marriage were legal, churches would not be forced to marry Gay couples. In addition, Friedes says there is a lot of work to be done with people of faith.

Part of the education process, according to Friedes, will be devoted to talking openly about what comes with a marriage license. "Most legally married couples don't understand the depth of protection they get through legal marriage," he told SGN. "They fail to understand those protections are important to families in times of crisis. There are intangible rights associated with marriage that we are not getting with domestic partnerships."

"Marriage is about love, commitment, and concern - legal marriage is the structure by which we support those values," he said. "Most people are unaware of the comprehensive legal protections, responsibilities and benefits that you get with a marriage license." With domestic partnerships, Gay and Lesbian couples get the same legal rights as married couples in Washington State, but those rights evaporate at the state's borders.

"When you get a marriage license, the state asks the federal government to give the federal protections that goes along with the nuptials. This is not done with domestic partnerships," Friedes told SGN. "The Federal Defense of Marriage Act blocks the recognition of couples of the same sex. In states that have Gay marriage, a Gay or Lesbian couple with a marriage license may not be getting the federal protections, but at least the states are asking the federal government for them. Washington State does not do this for domestic partnerships."

ADDING TO FOUR YEARS OF SUCCESS
Friedes says that LGBT Washingtonians have had four incredible years of legislative success. The economic downturn has had a dramatic effect on state revenue. As the legislature grapples with the budget crisis, Friedes said ERW will work with coalition partners to ensure that budget cuts are as humane as possible. Additionally, the organization will work to find new sources of revenue because "an all-cuts budget will simply leave Washington's most vulnerable unprotected" and every Washingtonian "will see cuts in services that are unacceptable." He said ERW is particularly concerned about possible budget cuts to HIV prevention programs and other health care services.

As one would expect, a number of bills have grown out of the passage of Referendum 71. "ERW is seeking to ensure the integrity of the ballot initiative process," said Friedes. "There are a number of bills being filed, that address the problems that we encountered during the signature verification process."

Friedes says that ERW is behind a bill that would fix a technical flaw in the state's hate crimes law. According to Friedes, the law - as it stands - applies to future threats, not present threats. The bill is a technical one, but Friedes says ERW believes it is important that the problem be fixed. "The scope of the law has been limited by a court case," he told SGN. "We need to restore the law to what its original intent was."

Another bill ERW has its eye on is the state's anti-bullying law. Washington State has what is considered a model anti-bullying law, but results from a study the legislation commissioned found that the law needs to be strengthened. According to Friedes, lawmakers found that although the law is respected nationally, there has not been a reduction of bullying in Washington schools. Rep. Marko Liias will be leading this effort.

Washington State Rep. Jamie Pedersen has introduced a bill that would ensure that individuals would recognize legal unions of same-sex couples from other states as state-registered domestic partnerships in Washington. The measure would ensure that married couples from out of state would have basic protections while they were in Washington, and it would also mean that couples in Washington would not have to register if they had legally married in another jurisdiction. Friedes says the bill had a January 13 hearing in the House Judiciary Committee with some very compelling testimony from a surviving partner whose spouse died while on a family vacation in Florida. Friedes says the legislature clearly understood not to harm families, as was done by a Florida law which refused to recognize the family. Testimony such as this, Friedes says, is an important part of the education process.

"Personal stories really illustrate the need for this bill, because it puts a human face on the problem," he said. "This is a simple, technical fix to a very real problem."

Another bill, heard on January 13 in Olympia, involved third-party visitation rights. Friedes says ERW supports the bill because they feel that very often there are children who have a very significant relationship with non-biological parents. He said that while ERW recognizes the importance of protecting the rights of biological parents, the bill would provide visitation rights to a third party when in the best interest of the child.

Friedes said that a bill was introduced that would "clean up" the Uniform Parentage Act. He says that the new measure would help normalize it with the domestic partnership law, making it easier for Gay and Lesbian couples to form families. He said there are issues surrounding surrogacy and other matters that would be addressed in the legislation filed by Representative Kessler.

ERW BACKS NATIONAL ISSUES, LOOKS TO THE FUTURE
"There are a number of laws that, over the course of time, will have to be amended to make sure they dovetail with the domestic partnership law," Friedes told SGN. "We have a very full plate with the short, 60-day legal session. As we send out action alerts to our members, we hope that people will rapidly respond to them. When people in our community are called upon to testify, we hope they will accept the offer."

In addition to the work ERW is involved with at the state level, he said the organization is behind a number of national issues that affect the LGBT community at large. In particular, he said they are behind the passing of a Trans-inclusive Employment Non Discrimination Act.

"It is important to remember that 2010 is an election year, and it is vitally important that we support the legislators who supported the domestic partnership law," he said. "ERW will be doing a great deal of fundraising for candidates who support marriage equality." Friedes says ERW is looking to identify candidates to run for open seats, and in some cases challenge incumbents who are not good on LGBT issues.

Currently, ERW has yet to elect a new executive director. Friedes says the process is continuing. "The application date closed on January 11, and the board is reviewing applicants."

Friedes said that the organization is looking forward to working with newly elected officials, such as Mayor Mike McGinn, as well as politicians like King County Executive Dow Constantine, a longtime supporter of LGBT civil rights.

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