by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The state attorney general's ballot title for Referendum 74 is being challenged in court by the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Washington and Parents, Families, and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG).
In a suit filed February 27 in Thurston County Superior Court, supporters of marriage equality argued that the language 'is not neutral, but instead creates prejudice toward the measure - such as the term 'redefine marriage' - one of the oft-used sound bites of advocates opposed to same-sex marriage.'
As it stands, here is the current proposed language by the attorney general:
'The bill would redefine marriage to allow same-sex couples to marry, apply marriage eligibility requirements without regard to gender, and specify that laws using gender-specific terms like 'husband' and 'wife' include same-sex spouses.'
The plaintiffs claim the ballot title and language - which 3 million Washington voters likely will see in voter pamphlets and on their ballots in November - is prejudiced. Instead, they say, 'A fair and accurate concise description would read: 'This bill would permit marriage for same-sex couples, protect religious freedom by ensuring clergy and religious organizations are not required to perform marriages or accommodate marriage celebrations, and preserve domestic partnerships for seniors.'
Anne Levinson, former judge, co-owner of the Seattle Storm, and supporter of marriage equality, is coordinating the legal team of Legal Voice and ACLU that challenged the Initiative 1192 ballot title and now is challenging the Referendum 74 ballot title.
'Ballot titles matter because they are what every voter sees,' Levinson told Seattle Gay News. 'It's the language on petitions, it's the language in the voter's pamphlet, and most importantly, it is the language on the ballot itself as the voter is casting his or her vote, so it is important that it be as clear and understandable as possible.'
'Referenda can be confusing enough to begin with, since the way referenda are written requires people who agree with the law that is being challenged to vote 'APPROVE,' when their initial thought is that they want to oppose it since they don't support the referendum,' she explained. 'But really what voters are being asked is whether they want to approve or reject the law passed by the Legislature. That's why for Referendum 74, voters who support civil marriage for same-sex couples will be voting 'APPROVE.' Voters need to clearly understand that if they vote 'REJECT,' the law would be repealed and that would eliminate civil marriage for same-sex couples.'
In addition to being clear and easy to understand, for the integrity of the voting process, the ballot title also needs to be an impartial description of the measure's essential contents, she said.
'It has to clearly identify the proposition to be voted on, and not create prejudice either for or against the measure,' Levinson told SGN. ' As we noted in our challenge to the ballot title drafted by the attorney general's office, the title and summary proposed by the attorney general has problems we are asking the court to address.'
The court is required to rule on the challenge before marriage equality foes can begin gathering signatures to put Referendum 74 on the ballot. A hearing is scheduled before Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee at 9 a.m. on March 13. Opponents will then have until June 6 to gather 120,577 valid voter signatures to get their measure on the November ballot.
'The essential contents of the law need to be better described for the voters - stating the law is about 'marriage' does not identify what the law is really about,' said Levinson. 'The essence of the law is that it permits marriage for same-sex couples while protecting religious freedom.'
Levinson said the proposed term 'redefine marriage' is a 'well-established, poll-tested 'sound bite' that has been used for years in state after state across the country by those who seek to prohibit civil marriage for same-sex couples.'
'In fact,' she pointed out, 'one of the most frequent and vociferous opponents of extending civil marriage to same-sex couples, the National Organization for Marriage, calls it their best phrase and directs their followers to use it whenever possible.'
Local Catholic bishops used it in testifying against the bill. Blogs, press releases, and interviews by opponents of marriage equality use this terminology over and over.
'Saying to the voters that this referendum is about 'redefining marriage' is not by any means neutral language; it feeds right into the framing opponents use,' said Levinson.
'In addition, laws that eliminate bans on marriage for same-sex couples don't redefine marriage,' she said. 'What these laws do is extend the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage to couples who were previously denied marriage licenses by their government.'
The meaning of marriage remains unchanged. The marriage laws themselves remain unchanged. The responsibilities and rights of married couples remain unchanged.
'Nobody's civil marriage is in any way redefined, nor is the meaning of marriage changed or the clergy's complete religious freedom to perform or celebrate or not perform or celebrate any marriage in accordance with their beliefs,' Levinson said.
It is important to note that Rob McKenna, attorney general of Washington, has publicly stated he does not support marriage equality. McKenna is the Republican candidate for governor.
Levinson says that the plaintiffs also asked the Court to recognize that the civil marriage equality law was intentionally written in such a way that it clearly protects religious liberty. 'These kinds of ballot measures can take a significant psychological toll on the people whose family lives are being debated, divide families and communities, and introduce vitriol among neighbors,' she told SGN. 'As a result, it is important to minimize misconceptions. Making sure voters understand that their personal religious beliefs and traditions about marriage and the views of their clergy are protected in the law is one way to do that.'
In November, Washington residents will likely vote on marriage equality. Six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. No state has ever voted to approve same-sex marriage.
'We have made a lot of progress over the years at the local and State level, passing laws on hate crimes, anti-bullying, non-discrimination, all with full inclusion for Trans Washingtonians; and domestic partnership laws, concluding in 2009, with us becoming the first state in the country to vote affirmatively for LGBT family recognition,' Levinson recalled. 'Getting the civil marriage equality law through the Legislature in this short session shows just how far we have come.'
'We are very fortunate to have a strong LGBT caucus in the Legislature, progressive friends in both houses, a terrific community to propose, lobby, and fight to retain these laws, and a governor who has stood with us in support of full LGBT equality every step of the way,' she said.
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