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Washington state already protects gay rights, but will voters allow same-sex couples to “marry”?

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I

n a photo above a crackling fireplace in their living room, Chelsey and Ruthie Thorne are reaching for each other. Ruthie is in a long, white wedding dress and veil, standing on the ladder of a tree house. Chelsey, in a white suit, is reaching out the little house’s window, grabbing Ruthie’s hand. They took the photo as part of a ceremony to celebrate their lifelong commitment to each other. There were pink bridesmaids’ dresses and speckled, pink-and-white lilies.

But after the couple’s first dance and after their friends lit sparklers to send them off, they soon found themselves back in the real world, filling out taxes and insurance forms as if the other person didn’t exist.

Referendum 74, on the ballot in Washington next month, would legalize same-sex marriage if it’s approved. The Legislature passed the law in January, but it was ultimately put on hold when opponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a public vote.

Supporters and opponents agree the law would increase same-sex couples’ acceptance in society, and that, they say, is why it’s so important. Opponents argue normalizing homosexuality threatens society’s moral fabric; proponents say it’ll mean more tolerance and less discrimination.

For the Thornes (domestic partnerships don’t come with a name change, but Ruthie paid extra for one), it would mean they wouldn’t have to spend so much time explaining their relationship to others.

“When this passes, it’ll be a lot easier for us to be like, ‘We’re married’ and maybe people will stop harassing us,” Ruthie says. “It always makes me proud to be able to be like, ‘That’s a wedding photo. It took place and it’s real.’ Sometimes I feel like … we’re not being taken seriously at all about who we are as a couple”

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In the broader fight for marriage equality, Washington’s vote — and the similar votes in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota — comes at a crucial moment.

A Gallup poll from earlier this year shows that 54 percent of Americans believe same-sex relationships are “morally acceptable” and 50 percent think same-sex marriage should be legal — up from 42 percent in 2004.

President Barack Obama is one of them. After repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as one man and one woman — Obama publicly stated in May that he believes “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Same-sex marriage is already legal in six states and the District of Columbia, where lawmakers or courts have made it so. And the high-profile Proposition 8, passed in California in 2008 limiting marriage to a man and a woman, has been appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court. (The justices have yet to decide whether they’ll consider the case this session.)

Still, in all 32 states where marriage equality has been to put a public vote, it has failed.

Washington may fare differently. It is not only a blue state, but also one where residents aren’t as likely to hear anti-gay marriage sermons: Just 32 percent of Washingtonians say they attend church weekly or almost weekly. Plus, the state already protects LGBT people in its anti-discrimination laws and offers domestic partnerships. A recent Survey USA/KING5 poll showed statewide support for the referendum at 55 percent.

Supporters are primarily organized behind the political group Washington United for Marriage, which has raised nearly $9 million, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, and created web videos and TV ads that focus on non-LGBT people’s support of all marriages. They feature parents of gay people, pastors who want to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples and straight married couples who say they want to extend their joy to other couples.

“I think to myself, ‘How could I deny any couple, whether they’re gay or straight, that incredible bond of marriage?’” says one woman in a 30-second spot called “Freedom.” “Allowing marriage for same-sex couples is a question of fundamental fairness.”

The group leading the opposition, Preserve Marriage Washington, has raised almost $2 million to date, according to the PDC, and released its first two web videos and one TV spot this month. At the forefront of its fight is Frank Schubert, a savvy and fiercely conservative political consultant who Preserve Marriage Washington has so far paid about $65,000 to craft its message, PDC figures show.

After leaving corporate public relations, Schubert ran the $40 million Proposition 8 campaign and is now running the campaigns against same-sex marriage in all four states with measures on the ballot. Preserve Marriage Washington has received $660,000 from the National Organization for Marriage, which also pays Schubert for consulting, according to the PDC.

Washington’s allowance of domestic partnerships is a boon to the conservative fight, argues a tired-sounding Schubert in a phone call from a campaign stop in Minnesota.

“It focuses the issue very squarely on the issue of marriage. It’s going to be very difficult for our opponents to say, ‘Approve this so one partner can visit a sick one in the hospital,’” Schubert says. “This is about marriage. What is its public purpose? What is its public good? We feel in that debate that we’ll win.”

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The essential message behind many of Schubert’s ads this time around is that people can oppose same-sex marriage without being hostile toward gay or lesbian people.

An ad in Minnesota says, “Everyone has a right to love who they choose, but nobody has a right to redefine marriage.” Washington’s is even more direct: “You can oppose same-sex marriage and not be anti-gay. Don’t redefine marriage.”

In Washington and Maine, where domestic partnerships protect couples, the ads remind voters that marriage would add no new rights. They all emphasize a view of marriage as a connection to children.

“Marriage is more than a commitment between adults. It was created for the care and well-being of the next generation,” Preserve Marriage Washington’s spot says over a photo of a young family.

An ad in Minnesota says marriage was “made by God.”

“It’s the basic message that marriage is pro-family and for the public good,” Schubert says. “It provides the ideal environment for raising children. While death and divorce sometimes prevent the ideal from occurring, it’s still the ideal. That will certainly be a key part of our messaging.”

While not all same-sex marriage opponents are religious, this war is largely being waged from pews and pulpits.

In 2011, 42 percent of Americans identified as Protestant. Another 23 percent said they were Catholics, and 10 percent non-denominational Christian, according to Gallup. Support for same-sex marriage among the biggest group, Protestants, is at 39 percent — compared to 51 percent among Catholics and 84 percent of non-Christians.

Preserve Marriage Washington has church-specific materials on its website and produced a “Call to Pastors” video, urging faith leaders to stand against same-sex marriage and encourage their congregations to do the same.

“We stand on the dangerous precipice of being the only state in the history of our nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote of our citizenry,” warns Preserve Marriage Washington Chairman Joseph Backholm in the video. “Would you take a stand with us for Biblical marriage by voting to reject Referendum 74 in this election?”

Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich has been vocal about the issue, appearing at forums and writing guest columns. At a League of Women voters forum, Pastor Mark Hamilton from Spokane’s 1Body Ministries, spoke against the referendum, saying changing who’s allowed to marry “could start a paradigm shift which would absolutely destroy marriage.”

Pastor Dan Jarms from Faith Bible Church in North Spokane sees the fight as one for his children’s future.

“The Christian community is very aware and very mobilized to vote,” Jarms says. “I don’t want to look back 50 years from now and say I didn’t stand up [against] something I knew was wrong.”

He’s calm and deliberate as he lays out what he sees as a fundamental clash between the faith that guides his life and the societal shift he sees around him. Jarms quotes scripture readily, saying homosexuality is a sin and arguing a change to the specifics of marriage would undermine its role as “an earthly parable of the unity between God and his church.”

He worries that children “will have modeled for them something different from what God calls best.”

“Societies at different times struggle with different sin issues,” he says, likening homosexuality to people keeping slaves. “Our sin in our day happens to be personal sexual freedom. … That’s the era my kids live in. They live in the have-sex-however-you-want-with-whoever-you-want era, and God has something to say about that.”

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When Corey Fortune told his parents earlier this year that he was planning his wedding, the first thing they said was: “Why?”

“We had been together, at this point, for just over six years,” Fortune says now. “If Johnny was a girl, they would be asking, ‘Why aren’t you married? Why aren’t you married yet? Get married.’”

Johnny is Johnny Quinn, Fortune’s partner with whom he’s owned two houses and held a commitment ceremony just weeks after they met. The couple met when Fortune was new to town from Western Washington, and before he’d come out as gay. Quinn was the first person he told, and the two say they’ve had something special ever since. Today, in their immaculate house with high ceilings, two Chihuahuas and a row of liberal campaign signs out front, they weigh the possibilities of Washington’s decision next month as they plan a wedding for August.

“It’s scary that whichever way this goes, it’s not going to be a very big margin and it’s still going to mean that half of the people don’t want me to get married,” Fortune says. “Half — half of the people that I walk past on the street say, ‘No. It’s terrifying.’”

At the heart of it, the couple admits, they’re fighting for one word: marriage. But they say they’re also fighting for what it will mean. They’re tired of fielding “which state” questions when they call each other “husband.” They want to be able to check “married” on their IRA forms at work, and they don’t want their life-long commitment to each other categorized in the “corporations” section of the Secretary of State’s website the way domestic partnerships currently are.

Religious arguments are flawed, they say, because Fortune and Quinn see marriage as a civil institution, not a strictly religious one.

“There is no valid, non-religious argument and the religious doesn’t matter because that’s not what we’re after,” Fortune says as the couple works through the opposition’s logic.

“We’re not redefining anything,” Quinn adds. “We’re not turning the word ‘marriage’ into ‘house.’ It’s still ‘marriage.’ We’re just making it a little bit more inclusive.”

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In arguments and advertising, potential impacts on children are widely cited by same-sex marriage opponents.

In one of Schubert’s most successful ads for Proposition 8 in California, a young girl comes home to her mom and asks, “Guess what I learned in school today.”

“I learned that a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess,” the girl says, beaming up at her mom. A Pepperdine University Law School professor then appears on the screen to warn parents that elementary school students in states with legal same-sex marriage will learn about it in school.

It’s already been a divisive issue in Washington. A panel of health educators, curriculum specialists, clinical staff and a school board member reviewed Washington state’s K-12 sexual health curricula last year, and many of them suggested the programs weren’t inclusive enough of LGBT relationships. “I could find no reference anywhere to same-sex couples,” wrote one reviewer.

Still, it’s no secret the American family has changed. A December 2011 Pew Research Center analysis of census data shows that fewer people are getting married and they’re doing it at older ages. A record low 51 percent of American adults are currently married, down from 72 percent in 1960. The American Psychological Association estimates that nearly half of married couples in the United States divorce, with the likelihood increasing with every subsequent marriage.

California psychologist Trayce Hansen says the disintegration of the traditional American family isn’t enough reason to abandon the “ideal.”

“The bottom line is that mothers matter and fathers matter, and they matter in different ways,” she says.

While R-74 wouldn’t affect state adoption laws, Hansen fears that increased recognition of same-sex couples will make raising children in those households more common and accepted.

“I think [LGBT people] have a strong desire for societal acceptance, and I can understand that, but we do not make these dramatic changes in our society because of emotions.”

But the science is still catching up. In its 2005 analysis of research on lesbian and gay parenting, the American Psychological Association wrote that “beliefs that lesbian and gay adults are not fit parents … have no empirical foundation,” and that there was no evidence to suggest, as many speculate, that children raised by same-sex couples will have more gender identity challenges than other children. Still, an analysis this year from the American College of Pediatricians says long-term data about children raised by same-sex couples is “sparse and gives reason for concern.”

Arguments that children shouldn’t learn about same-sex relationships are hard for Fortune to stomach.

“I hate to reuse the term ‘second-class citizens,’ but I never really understood that until I heard things like this: ‘Kids are going to be taught that it’s OK and it’s normal,’” he says. “It is OK. It is normal. And you telling me otherwise — it’s hurtful and it’s bigotry.”

In a world of legal same-sex marriage, R-74 opponents fear that their community will be marginalized. Take a Bible-believing caterer or a wedding photographer, Pastor Jarms and others argue. If R-74 passes, they worry such business owners could be subject to lawsuits for refusing to participate in a same-sex ceremony.

“They should have argued this before 2006,” says Kim Pearson, a Gonzaga law professor who has also worked at the Williams Institute, a think tank focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.

That’s because in 2006, Washington outlawed discrimination against LGBT people. Those anti-discrimination laws apply to all businesses, Pearson says. So, with or without a legal marriage certificate, a same-sex couple has the right to buy wedding services from anyone who works in the open market.

It’s not an unprecedented worry. When a lesbian couple in New Mexico complained to the state’s human rights commission after a photographer refused to participate in their commitment ceremony, a court sided with the couple. Pearson says similar cases have happened with wedding facilities across the country, but that in Washington, they would be subject to anti-discrimination laws regardless of marriage recognition.

“It’s a pretty clear-cut line once you enter the market and you’re a business venture,” Pearson says. “All of the cases of people in a secular business with religious beliefs have not come down on the side of religion.”

This can get tricky in public-private groups, like Catholic Charities, which receives state funding for its adoption and foster placement programs. After an Illinois state law allowing civil unions passed, the nonprofit was told it would lose its state funding if it continued refusing to consider same-sex couples as potential foster and adoptive parents. In the end, the Illinois branch of the charity nixed its state-funded programs.

Some make a similar argument about religious leaders, fearing they could be forced to officiate same-sex weddings. But the referendum’s language specifies that it would “preserve the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform, recognize or accommodate any marriage ceremony.”

Jarms worries that despite those protections, religious organizations may still have to defend against nuisance lawsuits.

“Someone’s going to say, ‘How far can we press this bill? How far can we take this?’”

“It’s scary that whichever way this goes, it’s not going to be a very big margin and it’s still going to mean that half of the people don’t want me to get married.”

When Chelsey decided to propose to Ruthie, she had an elaborate plan. It was Halloween weekend. They would stay at a bed and breakfast at Green Bluff, where the band would play the Zombies’ “Spooky Little Girl Like You” with the lyric, “so I propose on Halloween.” She’d ask the question, and they would have homemade breakfast the next morning. But Chelsey’s scheme unravelled quickly. Ruthie didn’t seem interested in a bed and breakfast, and she’s not crazy about surprises. So, exasperated at 11 pm on the Friday before Halloween, with Dracula face paint left over from costume day at work, Chelsey changed the plan. She lit candles, spread rose petals on the floor of their kitchen and called Ruthie into the room.

“I’m so nervous. I have my boxers on. My face still has makeup on it,” she remembers, laughing. As Chelsey is telling the story, Ruthie’s smiling at her and giggling. She laughs until she cries.

“We have a super normal lifestyle, and we really love each other,” Chelsey says later. “Why wouldn’t that be OK?” 

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