February 16, 2012 / 2:50 PM / 8 years ago

Washington gay marriage debate not yes or no, but both

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Opponents of Washington state’s new gay marriage law want voters to select “no” on the November 2012 ballot. And also “yes.”

Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire addresses the audience shortly before signing legislation legalizing gay marriage in the state in Olympia, Washington February 13, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Sorbo

That seeming paradox stems in competing efforts launched this week by two groups dedicated to the cause of keeping Washington from joining six other states and the District of Columbia from legalizing same-sex matrimony.

Hours after Governor Christine Gregoire signed legislation on Monday to bestow marriage rights on gay and lesbian couples, repeal advocates submitted paperwork at the state Capitol to put the issue before the electorate as a referendum.

The head of the Preserve Marriage Washington coalition, Joseph Backholm, said his group plans to start circulating petitions for Referendum 74 in early March, once the ballot language is approved by state officials.

They have until June 6 to gather the 120,577 valid signatures needed to secure a spot on the 2012 ballot.

If the referendum qualifies, the gay marriage statute — already on hold until June 7 under the standard waiting period for new laws — would be kept from taking effect before the election.

A majority of “no” votes on the referendum question in November would strip the new law from the books altogether.

But Thursday morning, a different repeal coalition, Protect Marriage Washington 2012, plans to start collecting signatures for Initiative 1192, asking voters to say “yes” to a measure that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

In contrast to a statewide referendum, initiatives have until July 6 to obtain 241,154 signatures, and only the referendum can delay the gay marriage law from taking effect before the election.

Coalition leader Stephen Pidgeon, 57, also a candidate for Washington attorney general, said his petitions will be available at thousands of churches, as well as some Staples store locations and online.

“We have dropped the blade and we are plowing,” Pidgeon said.

Gay marriage supporters and opponents alike speculate having both measures on the ballot could confuse some voters asked to cast opposite votes for two measures expressing the same sentiment.

So if Preserve Marriage Washington fails to collect enough signatures, there could be a window in which same-sex marriages begin and are later halted should the initiative win voter approval. It also remains unclear what would happen if both measures appear on the ballot but voters reject R-74 while approving I-1192.

“In principle, everyone’s trying to accomplish the same things,” Backholm, 33, said. “But it would be amazingly confusing.”

Still, Backholm and Pidgeon, once allies as part of Protect Marriage Washington in 2009, which failed to win repeal of the state’s domestic partnership law, insisted voters will ultimately figure it out.

Pidgeon, who has spent weeks haggling with state officials over the final ballot language for I-1192, said he supports the referendum but argued his initiative can get started sooner and has broader implications than responding to a specific law.

“They’re going after condemnation language. We have a different point of view,” he said. “We’re part of a longer-term agenda.”

Backholm said he believes voters will be more reluctant to affirm gay marriage than they were in upholding same-sex benefits.

“For better or worse, many people see a big difference between domestic partnership benefits and actually redefining marriage,” Backholm said. “There’s more of a grey area for a lot of people on the domestic partnership issue. Now that ambiguity has gone away, because it’s unequivocally about redefining the institution of marriage.”

Backholm also anticipates significant support from out-of-state donors, volunteers and agencies for the repeal effort, and noted ballot-measure campaigns tend to draw more attention when they coincide with a presidential election, as these will.

“There’s an awareness that no state is an island on this issue,” he said. “It’s a national discussion that we’re having. What happens in other places affects where you are.”

On the other side of the debate, gay marriage supporters under the Washington United for Marriage banner got a head start, having organized months ago to lobby state legislators to pass same-sex matrimony.

But its members predict a tough battle, especially with the millions of dollars they expect to pour in from outside contributors to help the referendum backers, as happened with California’s Proposition 8.

Annual gay-pride celebrations scheduled across Washington in June, after the R-74 signatures are due, will double as fundraisers and “Vote Yes on 74” campaign events.

Thinking ahead, Anna Schlecht, 54, a gay rights advocate from Olympia, got the governor and dozens of supportive state lawmakers to autograph two rainbow flags as they concluded the signing ceremony on Monday. She plans to auction the banners off for the “vote yes” R-74 campaign.

“Getting this far was a lot of work,” Schlecht said. “Getting to November is going to take a lot of time, passion and money.”

Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor

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