Politics & Government

Rights ballot may get renamed

The fight over Referendum 71 and the rights of same-sex domestic partners in Washington is headed to court for a possible rewording of the ballot title before voters get a chance to sign or reject petitions.

Larry Stickney, leader of the Washington Values Alliance and the Protect Marriage Washington effort, filed his legal challenge Tuesday to the ballot title language prepared by the state Attorney General’s Office for R- 71.

Stickney wants a Thurston County Superior Court judge to reword the ballot description and summary, which says that the “rights, responsibilities, and obligations” for domestic partners are “to be equivalent to those of married spouses, except that a domestic partnership is not a marriage.”

Stickney’s group wants the language to say that domestic partner rights are “equal to” marriage but that domestic partnerships are not called marriage, according to Stephen Pidgeon, attorney for Stickney and his Protect Marriage Washington political committee.

Lisa Stone, executive director for Legal Voice, a rights-advocacy group in Seattle, said the rewording is an attempt to confuse voters if R-71 qualifies for the ballot. She said Washington Families Standing Together had reviewed the language as proposed and believed it was accurate as written by staff for the Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna.

The Washington Families Standing Together coalition is mounting a “decline to sign” campaign that would, if successful, keep R-71 off the ballot, ensuring SB 5688 takes effect in July.

The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, Equal Rights Washington, Human Rights Campaign, Jewish Federation of Seattle, PFLAG, Planned Parenthood, Religious Coalition for Equality, the Service Employees International Union 775 and the Washington State Psychological Association.

“It is likely that Washington Families Standing Together will intervene in this lawsuit to make sure that the ballot title remains accurate,’’ Stone said late Tuesday afternoon. “I haven’t seen the complaint, but based on what I’ve been told, the anti-family opponents are trying to confuse the voters about what domestic partnerships are and actually do.”

Spokesmen for the Office of the Secretary of State have said that any ballot title challenge is likely to be heard either Friday, June 5 or June 12. The case has been assigned to Judge Tom McPhee.

The judge’s ruling on ballot wording is final, and Stickney’s group is free to start collecting signatures as soon as a ballot title is approved. Stickney needs 120,577 valid voters signatures by July 25 to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot.

R-71 in effect asks voters if they want to re-enact Senate Bill 5688 or repeal it. SB 5688 as passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor expands the rights provided to domestic partners who register with the secretary of state. It represents the third round of rights given to registered domestic partners in Washington, and backers say it now provides all of the state rights of marriage.

But even if SB 5688 becomes law, Washington domestic partners would still lack a majority of rights given to married couples, according to Josh Friedes of both Washington Families Standing Together and Equal Rights Washington.

“Even with the domestic partnership expansion bill of 2009, gay and lesbian couples still lack the federal protections, such as Social Security, survivors and spousal benefits, immigration rights, veterans benefits, equal treatment under the IRS tax code and over 1,100 other rights and protections,” Friedes said. “It’s a very large number.”

Stickney’s group includes the Faith & Freedom Network and other evangelical supporters such as Republican Sens. Dan Swecker of Rochester and Val Stevens of Arlington. Stickney says he is amassing a large base of volunteers.

He filed his ballot challenges on the final day it was allowed. It fell on the same day California’s Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved initiative barring same-sex marriage in that state.

But even with the California court ruling, it leaves California’s registered same-sex couples with the same legal protections that same-sex Washington couples would obtain if R-71 and SB 5688 are upheld, Friedes said.