SEATTLE (Reuters) - Gay marriage opponents in Washington state blocked a law legalizing same-sex matrimony from taking effect as scheduled Thursday by submitting a petition for a ballot measure to repeal the statute.
The group behind the repeal initiative, Referendum 74, said on Wednesday they had collected more than 241,000 signatures, about twice as many as needed, to qualify the measure for the ballot in November.
Across the state, county officials who had been preparing to issue batches of new licenses to same-sex couples starting on Thursday put their plans on hold.
Advocates of repeal had until Wednesday to gather at least 120,577 signatures to win approval for a referendum giving Washington's voters a chance to overturn a measure passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat.
Democrats, who also control both legislative bodies in Olympia, accounted for the lion's share of support for gay marriage in Washington state, as they have elsewhere in the country. Opponents were led by religious conservatives, the bulk of them Republicans.
Six states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage.
Even before the Washington state bill was signed in February, political observers had expected it to be challenged at the ballot box in November. The outcome is far from certain, even in a state as politically liberal and Democratic-leaning as Washington.
In every state where the question of gay marriage has been put directly to voters so far, including California, it has been rejected, experts say. University of Washington law professor Peter Nicolas said 30 states have amended their state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage.
SIGNATURES EXPECTED TO BE CERTIFIED
After a check of some signatures collected by the group Preserve Marriage Washington, Referendum 74 could be officially certified for the November ballot by the middle of next week, said David Ammons, spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State's Office.
"By all reasonable expectations, it will be on the ballot," he said.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which has successfully campaigned against gay marriage in other states, has joined the repeal push in Washington state.
Joseph Blackholm, chairman of Preserve Marriage Washington, said in a statement that the response to his group's petition drive was "incredible throughout every corner of the state."
"Support for Referendum 74 was strong from the beginning, and has grown as the signature drive has advanced," he said.
But Gregoire predicted voters would support extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
"The state should not be in the business of discriminating against those who request a marriage license, and I believe a majority of Washington voters agree," she said in a statement.
Gay marriage supporters appear to have a big money advantage so far.
Preserve Marriage Washington has raised $113,168 in campaign funds, according to the website for the Washington state Public Disclosure Commission. Washington United for Marriage, the main coalition seeking to uphold same-sex weddings in the state, has raised $714,590, the commission website said.
"We're pretty laser-focused on building our bi-partisan campaign, building a broad coalition and building a long and aggressive campaign to win in November," said Zack Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage.
Marriage Equals One Man Plus One Woman, a group separate from Preserve Marriage Washington, is collecting signatures for another proposed ballot measure that seeks to define marriage as between one man and one woman. That group is headed by attorney Stephen Pidgeon.
To qualify for the ballot, it must obtain 242,000 signatures by July 6, Pidgeon said. His organization is aiming for 300,000 signatures and is about a third of the way there, he said.
Maryland lawmakers earlier this year approved a measure to allow same-sex marriage in that state, but opponents there also have petitioned for a repeal referendum.