Voters supporting same-sex partner rights

Washington voters were on the verge of making history Tuesday night, as the state was poised to become the first to affirm same-sex partnership rights at the ballot box.

No state had upheld rights for gay or lesbian couples in a popular vote, and voters in Maine appeared to be rejecting a measure to legalize same-sex marriage.

Washington’s Referendum 71 did not go as far as Maine’s measure, although foes tried to paint it as a gateway to gay-marriage legalization. But R-71 does give registered domestic partners in Washington all the state rights that married couples have – mirroring the legal protections that same-sex partners already have won in neighboring Oregon and in California.

“We did a very good job … in making sure gay and lesbian families were at the forefront of the conversation and that people never lost sight of who we were talking about,” Approve 71/Washington Families Standing Together spokesman Josh Friedes said before ballot counting began on Election Day.

A coalition of conservative religious groups led a campaign to challenge lawmakers’ work, collecting just enough signatures to prevent the law from taking effect and force it onto the ballot.

But Approve 71’s backers had four times as much money as opponents, and the effort won backing from a coalition that included labor, moderate religious leaders, and major businesses including Microsoft, Starbucks and Boeing.

Protect Marriage Washington leaders including Larry Stickney of the Washington Values Alliance issued a statement early in the day. They said their effort was reinvigorating the religious conservative movement in this state, preparing it for future battles.

“Whether or not SB 5688 becomes law today, and we pray it does not, R-71 has defined a diverse group of citizens willing to stand and risk, in defense of their deeply held core beliefs,” the group said in part. “Plans are under way for a new and greater resolve to be present during the 2010 session and future elections.”

Stickney could not be reached for comment as results were reported in the evening.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex relationships to varying degrees, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which backed the R-71 effort. The Washington law includes same-sex couples and some opposite-sex couples with one partner older than 62.

R-71 specifically asked voters to affirm or reject the state Legislature’s approval this year of Senate Bill 5688, the so-called “everything but marriage” law. Rights at stake in the vote included the right to automatically inherit benefits from a partner’s public pension, the right to take unpaid leave from work to care for a critically ill partner, and a right to receive death benefits.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688