It’s a question that is stirring activists on both sides of this emotional political issue.
On one side are committed, same-sex couples like Lynn Grotsky and Lisa Brodoff of Lacey, who say an expansion of rights is needed to protect families like theirs in medical emergencies. R-71 would allow those on the state’s domestic partner registry to take unpaid leave from a job to care for a critically ill partner or to receive death benefits and survivor benefits from public pensions.
On the other side are religious conservatives like Pastor Roy Hartwell and Pastor Valerie Hartwell, a DuPont couple who leads the Rivers of Glory Christian Church in Lacey. They have moral objections to homosexuality and fear R-71 will open the door to same-sex marriage in Washington.
State lawmakers approved an “everything but marriage” law early this year, and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it into law. Religious conservatives led by Larry Stickney of Arlington launched a petition campaign to force Senate Bill 5688 onto the Nov. 3 ballot as R-71.
R-71 asks voters simply whether they want to approve the Legislature’s work. A yes vote is in favor of extending rights to same-sex couples and to unmarried opposite-sex couples older than 62; a no vote would reject the Legislature’s work.
Anne Levinson, chair of the Approve 71 campaign and its Washington Families Standing Together committee, calls R-71 a “safety net” for families that are not able to legally marry, and she says it would allow same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples older than 62 to receive a partner’s death benefits, public pension benefits and to take family leave to care for the other.
The Washington Poll last year showed growing, majority support for giving recognition to same-sex relationships with a clear majority favoring such support. But opponents of R-71 have said the measure is too much like same-sex marriage, which has less than majority support, and many like Stickney, leader of Protect Marriage Washington, consider it a moral issue and a last chance for Washington voters to block same-sex marriage.
“Marriage has been under pressure for a long time. It continues to get worse, the influence of the culture,” Stickney said. “This next step is not necessarily worse than the last step we took toward a society in decline. We’re further into it. We’re at the stage where I think we are a sick society when this is being bantered about. It should be a no-brainer that people recognize for what it is. It’s not the end of the world but it’s a step in the wrong direction. …”
The issue has been divisive, and opponents say they have received harassing phone calls, even threats, and had their campaign signs defaced.
LESBIAN COUPLE WANTS LEGAL PROTECTIONS
Grotsky and Brodoff have lived together for almost 29 years. Like many traditional families, the suburban professionals have given birth to two children, raised them to adulthood, and lived in the same ranch-style home for most of that time on a one-acre lot with an orchard.
They did it all without the hospital visitation rights enshrined in the 2007 domestic partner law or the inheritance protections in the 2008 law.
“We saw what it was like. We went through having our children and raising them, and being a family when we didn’t have any of these rights,” Brodoff said last week, recalling a 21/2-year legal fight to secure a “second-parent adoption” in the late 1980s for their first child, daughter Evan, and other travails. “We did it. It was not easy and it takes a lot of time, energy to try to protect ourselves and we were still not able to fully protect ourselves.”
Referendum 71, if it passes Nov. 3, would give Brodoff and Grotsky all of the remaining state rights granted to married couples, including the right to take sick leave to care for a stricken partner, to receive death benefits and survivor benefits from a public pension, and about 200 other rights. Although they would eventually like to see full marriage rights extended to couples like theirs, they are enthusiastic supporters of the state’s domestic partnership law, which they signed up for the first day it was available in 2007.
Grotsky, a clinical social worker in private practice, estimates they spent an extra $80,000 to $100,000 over the years on health insurance because Grotsky could not qualify for spousal coverage on Brodoff’s policy from Seattle University, where the latter teaches law, until a couple of years ago.
Grotsky also recalled a time Brodoff was hospitalized for a miscarriage, and she was denied admission to see Brodoff, because she was not the legal next of kin. When Grotsky did barge in to the emergency room, she found Brodoff cold and alone.
LOCAL PASTOR, WIFE SEE ASSAULT ON MARRIAGE
On the other side of the cultural divide are couples like the Hartwells. They have raised six children, and they believe they should live their lives according to God’s dictates. They say their reading of the Bible tells them homosexuality is an abomination and they do not understand why some Christian pastors and leaders endorse R-71.
“Homosexuals have been around since the beginning of time. Now they are trying to push their behavior as a norm in our society. We totally reject that,” Roy Hartwell said. “They want to change the traditional definition of marriage.”
But “as far as homosexual couples, a lesbian couple raising a kid by themselves … what they do in their home is of no concern to us as Christians. We would prefer a healthier family structure, but what they do is between them and God,” Hartwell added.
He and his wife say they are concerned that passage of R-71 will further establish the normalcy of same-sex relationships, and Valerie Hartwell contends it is already leading to changes in portrayals of homosexuality in school curriculum.
Roy Hartwell says he doesn’t hate gays, but has become the victim of intolerant acts — including threatening phone calls in August and more recently a defaced campaign sign in their yard.
In an e-mail, he described how his wife’s younger brother, whom he described as a “gay impersonator” in Las Vegas shows, died of AIDS in 1994. “I told him I didn’t hate him; I love him. But I can’t condone what he is doing,” Hartwell wrote.
The Rivers of Glory church has given the Protect Marriage Washington campaign $2,000, and the couple warn that passage of R-71 is just one stop on the way to enactment of full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Despite donations from supporters such as the Hartwells, the Protect Marriage campaign is being heavily outspent by the Approve 71 campaign. The battle has drawn some of the region’s biggest businesses into the fray, helping two pro-gay groups collect roughly $1.6 million in contributions; this dwarfs the roughly $410,000 collected by two groups opposed to granting additional rights to same-sex couples.
APPROVE 71 COLLECTS BUSINESS, FINANCIAL SUPPORT
Boeing, Microsoft, Puget Sound Energy and Vulcan are among the companies backing R-71, and Microsoft has donated $100,000, backed up by smaller donations from the company’s founder, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and executive Steve Ballmer. The Approve 71 campaign appears to have built a much larger coalition of support from civil rights, labor and even legal groups such as the state bar association, and its list of supporters includes religious figures such as the Rev. George Anne Boyle of St. Benedict Episcopal Church in Lacey.
Boyle was among 85 religious leaders who released a statement during the summer in support of the domestic partnership law.
Among opponents, the conservative Family Policy Institute has given the largest amount, about $200,000, to a second opposition committee, Vote Reject on R-71. The region’s five Catholic bishops also have come out against R-71, and Stickney says fear of retaliation is keeping some donors in the business community from chipping in on his side.
One of the biggest arguments in the campaign is what will happen if R-71 passes. Approve 71 spokesman Josh Friedes says it will merely give same-sex couples the same protections that couples in California and Oregon already enjoy, while falling well short of the full marriage recognition available in British Columbia.
On its face, the measure simply provides the remaining 200 state rights of marriage left out by the Legislature when it approved the domestic partnership registry in 2007, then added more rights in 2008. The first rounds of rights included hospital visitations, inheritance, community property and other rights that also were granted to opposite-sex couples with at least one partner age 62 or older.
But R-71 does not allow marriage licenses and does not include any of the more than 1,100 federal rights of marriage that deal with tax laws, pensions and other issues, Friedes said.
SAME-SEX MARRIAGE IS SEPARATE ISSUE
Even so, Republican state Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane Valley and Stickney contend R-71 opens the way to an easier second challenge of the state’s marriage law. The state’s controversial Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to a relationship between a man and woman, was upheld by the state Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 ruling on July 26, 2006.
“Any time you have a situation where you have all the same kind of protections and rights of another class, so to speak, you have a potential argument for equal protection” under the law, Shea said in July at the R-71 signature turn-in. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
Shea said he is a constitutional attorney and has consulted similar specialists in the law from around the country who share his view.
“I would even say the statewide media is perpetrating the biggest fraud in history by denying this is marriage. This is ultimately marriage. This is marriage,” Stickney added.
Two University of Washington law school professors expert in constitutional law say Shea’s and Stickney’s claims are not true. Peter Nicolas, a gay man who teaches a course about gay rights and the Constitution, said the state Supreme Court has made clear that the standard for considering issues of discrimination against gays and lesbians is of the lowest level in the law — something he called a “rational basis review.”
That means Washington courts are more likely to tolerate unequal treatment of gays and lesbians on marital or other issues — unlike states such as Connecticut and California where courts apply a “heightened scrutiny” and have objected to one-man, one-woman marriage laws, Nicolas said.
If R-71 passes, Nicolas said, courts could see it as further evidence that gays and lesbians have political clout. This in turn would hurt gays’ chances of winning a level of judicial review using the equal protection guarantees of the state and federal constitutions, he said.
Stewart Jay, a senior constitutional law professor at UW, said Nicolas is exactly right in his analysis. Jay said the state Supreme Court already cited gays’ success in passing an anti-discrimination law in 2006 as evidence of their growing political power, which is an argument against treating gays as a “suspect class” deserving of additional constitutional protections.
“Surely, legislative passage and popular approval of an ‘all but marriage’ law would be the icing on the cake of this argument,” Jay said. “On the other hand, rejection of R-71 could be interpreted as evidence of political weakness on the part of gays and lesbians, and thus provide a basis for questioning the rationale of” the Supreme Court decision upholding the Defense of Marriage Act.
As for the argument that R-71 is a political steppingstone, Stickney and the Hartwells are correct.
Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat and one of several gay lawmakers pushing the rights agenda, has all along sought an incremental political strategy. He and Democratic Rep. Jamie Pedersen have often said their goal is to gradually educate the public that many of their neighbors, like Grotsky and Brodoff, are gay or lesbian, and deserving of rights to protect their families.
Murray also has made no secret that he regards the same-sex marriage as the real political prize.
The inclusion of opposite-sex couples age 62 or older on the partnership registry has been less controversial. But it is starting to get more attention as R-71 backers advertise the benefits of the measure.
Some R-71 critics question the way seniors are included. Steve O’Ban, a lawyer who fought in the Supreme Court to retain the state’s one-man, one-woman definition of marriage several years ago, told The Olympian’s editorial board last month he thinks lawmakers should have allowed the hospital visitation and end-of-life rights in the 2007 bill but then stopped adding rights.
O’Ban said he would have opened the health-care and end-of-life partnership rights to all people in significant relationships where marriage is not an option — such as his sisters-in-law who never married but have shared lives in common.
The Washington fight is one of a handful around the country this year, including a ballot measure in Maine that asks voters whether to uphold that state’s legalization of same-sex marriage. Voters in Kalamazoo, Mich., also are weighing an ordinance that would bar discrimination against sexual minorities.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688