Petitions to arrive today, starting marriage race

Same-sex: One side touts equal rights, the other wants to preserve tradition; voters will decide in November

June 6, 2012 

The R-74 campaign is off and running and will make Washington voters either the first in the nation to approve gay marriage at the ballot box or another in a long line of state electorates rejecting the concept.

Petitions to be turned in this morning will put the brakes on same-sex weddings that otherwise would have been legal starting Thursday under the law passed by the Legislature last winter.

Whether voters allow it to take effect could depend on whether they are persuaded by supporters of the law to sympathize with the aspirations of gay and lesbian couples or by opponents that it upends the very definition of marriage.

Canvassers say they have more than 200,000 signatures – far more than they need – gathered at churches, stores, farmers markets, Safeco Field, Republican political conventions and elsewhere.

Their opponents have been running Web ads, calling voters – including at a phone bank at Tacoma’s First United Methodist Church today where same-sex couples are invited to make calls – and collecting signatures of their own to serve as a symbolic rebuttal.

“We pretty well went into campaign mode immediately following the legislative session, recognizing how big the threat was from our opponents,” said Zach Silk, manager of the Washington United for Marriage campaign, who described his side as the underdogs despite polls showing supporters of gay marriage outnumber opponents.

“We take it very seriously. They’ve won 32 of 32 of these things,” Silk said.

Neither is the Preserve Marriage Washington campaign on the other side taking anything for granted, despite those victories in 32 states that have voted. Early on, some of the same-sex marriage opponents called in the ultimate backup. They held a day of prayer and fasting.

“About a month ago the signatures were pretty low,” said Pastor Phil Spagnolo of South Hill Calvary Chapel, one of the local pick-up and drop-off points for signatures. “People kind of procrastinate, but at the time it seemed like, ‘this seems impossible.’”

In part because of a last-minute effort to pay professional signature gatherers, the campaign brought in far more than the 120,577 signatures they needed.

It’s the first political issue Spagnolo can recall South Hill Calvary involving itself in. He said the church stayed out of the 2009 campaign over the “everything but marriage” referendum that expanded domestic partnerships for gay people.

Spagnolo said his own personal breakthrough came when he thought about kids growing up not knowing any other definition of marriage.

His church’s website makes a similar argument. It says: “Washington state is at a pivotal moment in history. The family may never be the same. Our children, may never know how God designed the family.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage say gays and lesbians should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Silk wrote in a statement that “Washingtonians believe that marriage belongs to all loving, committed couples. But get ready. Our opponents are already spinning fear and spreading misinformation.”

They take pains to point out that churches won’t be directly affected. If the law takes effect, faith groups can still refuse to perform the weddings of gays and lesbians.

“It doesn’t place any limitations on the church,” said Hannah Britt, Pierce County field organizer for Washington United for Marriage. “It’s just about civil marriage and people wanting to have a civil marriage.”

Expect arguments for and against the law to play out over the next few months in ads funded by millions of dollars from national groups, including the National Organization for Marriage and Human Rights Campaign.

But national money will be spread thin over ballot fights in Washington, Maine, Minnesota and Maryland, said Joseph Backholm, president of Preserve Marriage Washington. The same is likely true of supporters’ allies.

Both groups are raising money from state residents as well. Microsoft and the local United Food and Commercial Workers union have kicked in support for pro-gay marriage United for Marriage, which will also have its first big fundraisers over the next week: a taping of activist and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage’s podcast and a “Get Engaged to Defend Marriage Equality Gala.”

Tacoma-area supporters are holding a fundraiser Thursday at the Tacoma Art Museum.

jordan.schrader @thenewstribune.com

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