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Gay Marriage Opponents Take Battle To The Ballot

Gov. Chris Gregoire (left) embraces Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat, after the Washington state House voted Wednesday to legalize gay marriage.
Elaine Thompson
Gov. Chris Gregoire (left) embraces Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat, after the Washington state House voted Wednesday to legalize gay marriage.

Washington may soon become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage. Lawmakers passed the bill Wednesday, and it has the governor's support.

Before it takes effect, though, it's likely to face a referendum challenge in November. Same-sex marriage will be on the ballot in a handful of states this year, and supporters have yet to win a statewide vote.

The 'Sanctity Of Marriage'

As the Washington House debated final passage of the gay marriage bill Wednesday, a small group of Catholics gathered on the Capitol steps, holding a framed portrait of Thomas More, who got in the way of Henry VIII's divorce plans.

"He was beheaded for standing up for the sanctity of marriage," protester Colleen Thomas says.

More is a fitting inspiration, she says, now that marriage is at the center of a different kind of political fight.

"All I know is marriage is between one man and one woman for life," Thomas says.

The Catholics were the only noticeable protesters. The scene at the state Capitol was remarkably placid, especially given the heat this issue has generated in the past.

State Sen. Ed Murray says that since 2006, he and other supporters of this bill have had a strategy of gradually warming the state up to the idea of gay marriage.

"We began with a series of domestic partnership bills," Murray says. "Year after year we engaged legislators and citizens in a discussion around what marriage is, and built our way toward the final vote in the Senate and the House."

The Next Step

But there's another reason for the quiet scene at the Capitol: The opponents of same-sex marriage have already moved on to the next field of battle.

"The people of Washington are going to respond in November and say, 'uh-uh,' " says Chris Plante, a representative of a group called the National Organization for Marriage.

He's just flown in to try to coordinate a repeal effort through a referendum or ballot initiative.

"This is a national battle; 31 out of 31 states, when they've voted on this issue, have chosen to define marriage as one man and one woman," Plante says. "And ... there's a momentum issue that we have to talk about. I don't want to have to go before a legislature and say, '31 out of 32.' "

Similar ballot measures are coming up this year in North Carolina, Minnesota and possibly Maine.

Fighting With Votes

Supporters of gay marriage think they can win this year. Zach Silk, with the pro-gay marriage group Washington United for Marriage, says the very idea is more mainstream than it was just a few years ago.

"Popular culture has changed on this issue. You have strong gay and lesbian characters on television. You have role models of families on television," Silk says.

Even some corporations have now decided it's safe to weigh in. The Washington same-sex marriage bill has support from big names like Microsoft, Starbucks and Nike.

Still, as a longtime Democratic operative, Silk knows that what really matters is the votes. He admits that in the past, gay marriage ballot questions have brought out more Republican voters. Yet, he believes this year will be a tipping point, and that turnout bonus will go to the Democrats.

"Voters that are least likely to turn out are young and urban, and this issue appeals to young, urban voters almost like no other issue," he says. "It's very galvanizing, it's extremely exciting, and we believe that it could be very helpful."

Beyond Partisanship

The handful of Republicans who backed the same-sex marriage bill hope Silk is wrong about this. State Sen. Steve Litzow, from the prosperous suburbs east of Seattle, says he thinks that gay marriage is becoming a post-partisan issue.

"You've got four Republicans [who] voted with the majority of the Democrats. You've got three Democrats who voted with the majority of the Republicans," he says. "In this day and age, that is bipartisan."

As to voter turnout, Litzow believes that the effect of the ballot question will be a wash. In a presidential year, with a wide-open governor's race and a state facing huge fiscal problems, Washington voters are likely to turn out in high numbers, regardless of gay marriage.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.