Washington state's domestic partner law hinges on voters

The OlympianOctober 24, 2009 

Will Washington state extend or roll back the civil rights of same-sex partners that were granted by the Legislature this year? That is the question Referendum 71 will ask voters in the Nov. 3 election.

It's a question that is stirring activists on both sides of this emotional political issue.

On one side are committed, same-sex couples like Lynn Grotsky and Lisa Brodoff of Lacey, who say an expansion of rights is needed to protect families like theirs in medical emergencies. R-71 would allow those on the state's domestic partner registry to take unpaid leave from a job to care for a critically ill partner and to receive death benefits and survivor benefits from public pensions.

On the other side are religious conservatives like Pastor Roy Hartwell and Pastor Valerie Hartwell, a DuPont couple who lead the Rivers of Glory Christian Church in Lacey. They have moral objections to homosexuality and fear R-71 will open the door to same-sex marriage in Washington.

State lawmakers approved an "everything but marriage" law early this year, and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it into law. Religious conservatives led by Larry Stickney of Arlington launched a petition campaign to force Senate Bill 5688 onto the Nov. 3 ballot as R-71.

R-71 asks voters simply whether they want to approve the Legislature's work. An "approved" vote is in favor of extending rights to same-sex couples and to unmarried opposite-sex couples older than 62; a "rejected" vote would reject the Legislature's work.

The issue has been divisive, and opponents say they have received harassing phone calls, even threats, and had their campaign signs defaced.

Grotsky and Brodoff have lived together for almost 29 years. Like many traditional families, the suburban professionals have given birth to two children, raised them to adulthood, and lived in the same ranch-style home for most of that time on a one-acre lot with an orchard.

They did it all without the hospital visitation rights enshrined in the 2007 domestic partner law or the inheritance protections in the 2008 law.

"We saw what it was like. We went through having our children and raising them, and being a family when we didn't have any of these rights," Brodoff said earlier this month, recalling a 21/2-year legal fight to secure a "second-parent adoption" in the late 1980s for their first child, daughter Evan, and other travails. "We did it. It was not easy, and it takes a lot of time, energy to try to protect ourselves and we were still not able to fully protect ourselves."

Referendum 71, if it passes Nov. 3, would give Brodoff and Grotsky all of the remaining state rights granted to married couples, including the right to take sick leave to care for a stricken partner, to receive death benefits and survivor benefits from a public pension, and about 200 other rights. Although they would eventually like to see full marriage rights extended to couples like theirs, they are enthusiastic supporters of the state's domestic partnership law, which they signed up for the first day it was available in 2007.

Grotsky, a clinical social worker in private practice, estimates they spent an extra $80,000 to $100,000 over the years on health insurance because Grotsky could not qualify for spousal coverage on Brodoff's policy from Seattle University, where the latter teaches law, until a couple of years ago.

Grotsky also recalled a time when Brodoff was hospitalized for a miscarriage, and she was denied admission to see Brodoff, because she was not the legal next of kin. When Grotsky did barge in to the emergency room, she found Brodoff cold and alone.

On the other side of the cultural divide are couples like the Hartwells. They have raised six children, and they believe they should live according to God's dictates. They say their reading of the Bible tells them that homosexuality is an abomination, and they do not understand why some Christian pastors and leaders endorse R-71.

"Homosexuals have been around since the beginning of time. Now they are trying to push their behavior as a norm in our society. We totally reject that," Roy Hartwell said. "They want to change the traditional definition of marriage."

But "as far as homosexual couples, a lesbian couple raising a kid by themselves … what they do in their home is of no concern to us as Christians. We would prefer a healthier family structure, but what they do is between them and God," Hartwell added.

He and his wife say they are concerned that passage of R-71 will further establish the normalcy of same-sex relationships, and Valerie Hartwell contends it is already leading to changes in portrayals of homosexuality in school curriculum.

Roy Hartwell says he doesn't hate gays, but has become the victim of intolerant acts – including threatening phone calls in August and more recently a defaced campaign sign in their yard.

The Protect Marriage campaign is being heavily outspent by the Approve 71 campaign. The battle has drawn some of the region's biggest businesses into the fray, helping two pro-gay groups collect roughly $1.6 million in contributions; this dwarfs the roughly $410,000 collected by two groups opposed to granting additional rights to same-sex couples.

Boeing, Microsoft, Puget Sound Energy and Vulcan are among the companies backing R-71. The Approve 71 campaign appears to have built a much larger coalition of support from civil rights, labor and even legal groups such as the state bar association.

Among opponents, the conservative Family Policy Institute has given the most, about $200,000, to a second opposition committee, Vote Reject on R-71. The region's five Catholic bishops also have come out against R-71, and Stickney says fear of retaliation is keeping some donors in the business community from chipping in on his side.

One of the biggest arguments in the campaign is over what will happen if R-71 passes. Approve 71 spokesman Josh Friedes says it will merely give same-sex couples the same protections that couples in California and Oregon already enjoy, while falling well short of the full marriage recognition available in British Columbia.

On its face, the measure simply provides the remaining 200 state rights of marriage left out by the Legislature when it approved the domestic partnership registry in 2007, then added more rights in 2008. The first rounds of rights included hospital visitations, inheritance, community property and other rights that also were granted to opposite-sex couples with at least one partner age 62 or older.

But R-71 does not allow marriage licenses and does not include any of the more than 1,100 federal rights of marriage that deal with tax laws, pensions and other issues, Friedes said.

Even so, Republican state Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane Valley and Stickney contend R-71 opens the way to an easier second challenge of the state's marriage law. The state's controversial Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to a relationship between a man and woman, was upheld by the state Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 ruling on July 26, 2006.

"Any time you have a situation where you have all the same kind of protections and rights of another class, so to speak, you have a potential argument for equal protection" under the law, Shea said in July at the R-71 signature turn-in.

But Anne Levinson, chair of the Washington Families Standing Together committee that is behind Approve 71, says the state Supreme Court already decided the case. Levinson said the court treated this as a legislative issue, which is what lawmakers did with Senate Bill 5688, which has now become R-71.

The Washington fight is one of a handful around the country this year, including a ballot measure in Maine that asks voters whether to uphold that state's legalization of same-sex marriage. Voters in Kalamazoo, Mich., also are weighing an ordinance that would bar discrimination against sexual minorities.

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