Did lawmakers overstep their bounds with Washington's domestic partnership law? Voters decide Tuesday

Did lawmakers overstep their bounds with Washington's domestic partnership law? Voters decide Tuesday
Marchers rallied in support of Referendum 71 in downtown Seattle earlier this month.
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington state's slow-but-steady approach to increasing rights and benefits to gay and lesbian couples hit its first snag just as the three-year process appeared to be complete.

After lawmakers passed the state's first domestic partnership bill in 2007, and then expanded it a year later, they completed the package with the so-called "everything but marriage" bill that was signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year.

On Tuesday, voters get the final say on whether they think lawmakers overstepped their bounds.

Referendum 71 asks voters to "approve" or "reject" the final expansion to the state's domestic partnership law, which grants registered domestic partners additional state-granted rights currently given only to married couples. Under state law, heterosexual seniors also can register as domestic partners.

Opponents of the law say R-71 is a vote on same-sex marriage.

"It enshrines into law something we don't think should be there," said Gary Randall of Protect Marriage Washington, which pushed to get the referendum on the ballot. "It is a bridge to gay marriage."

Supporters of gay rights say that the marriage debate is for another day, but that in the meantime, same-sex couples need additional legal protections and rights.

Those opposed to R-71 are "asking people to take away the basic safety net that families need when there's a crisis because these social conservatives think it might somehow lead to marriage," said Anne Levinson, chairwoman of Washington Families Standing Together, the group fighting to keep the law on the books.

The expanded law adds benefits including the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner, and rights related to adoption, child custody and child support.

The law was supposed to take effect July 26, but now will take effect only if approved by voters.

Recent polling has indicated support for the new law. In September, independent pollster Stuart Elway found the measure holding a 46-41 lead for approval among registered voters, with 13 percent undecided. This week, the Washington Poll, released through the University of Washington, found even stronger support, with a 56-46 lead, with 5 percent undecided.

More than $2.1 million has been spent in the campaign, with a bulk of it spent by supporters of the domestic partnership law. The biggest single donation to the campaign in support of the law came from Microsoft Corp., which gave $100,000 to the effort. Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer and co-founder Bill Gates each gave $25,000.

TV ads in support of the law started running statewide earlier this month, while those opposed have spent much of their money on radio ads.

"We're not highly funded," Randall, of the reject campaign, said. "The focus is on the grass roots, the people who got this on this ballot in the first place."

If the law is rejected at the polls, previously enacted legislation on domestic partnerships would remain in place.

The underlying domestic partnership law, which the Legislature passed in 2007, provided hospital visitation rights, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations, and inheritance rights when there is no will.

Last year, lawmakers expanded that law to give domestic partners standing under laws covering probate and trusts, community property and guardianship.

"We've done the right thing by choosing an incremental approach and doing this slowly and bringing people along with us," said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat who has been a main sponsor on the domestic partnership bills.

More than 12,000 people in Washington state are registered as domestic partners. Most of the couples are gay.

Levinson said the reject R-71 campaign is "anti-gay," and she pointed to the rhetoric being used by opponents, including a recent letter written by Sen. Val Stevens, a Republican from Arlington, that was posted on the Protect Marriage Web site.

"Are the homosexuals finally going to take control of our culture and push their depraved lifestyle on our children and families?" the letter asked.

Until recently, the focus of the public debate over R-71 was on the court battle over whether the names of those who pushed for the public vote should be disclosed. The U.S. Supreme Court recently stopped the release of the names of the more than 138,000 people who signed referendum petitions, as it decides whether to hear the case - something that is not expected to happen until after the election.

Another lawsuit was filed in federal court last week by a political action committee also seeking to overturn the new law. The Family PAC wanted the court to allow it to accept contributions of more than $5,000, and to be exempt from having to report donor's names. A federal judge ruled that the group must abide by state campaign finance laws while their suit moves ahead.

Washington state, along with several other states, including California, Oregon and New Jersey, have laws that either recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships that afford same-sex couples similar rights to marriage.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont, and will start in New Hampshire in January. A referendum in Maine on Tuesday will determine the fate of a same-sex marriage bill passed by the Legislature in May.

Take KATU's Referendum 71 poll.