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Efforts to legalize same-sex marriage (SSM) in Washington State:

2011: Background. Past redefinitions of
marriage. Could a SSM law suvive a referendum?

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On election day, 2009-NOV, Washington state voters passed Referendum 71 by a vote of 53% to 47%. This confirmed a domestic partnership law passed earlier that year by the state legislature. It gave the full set of state benefits, protections and obligations to committed couples who were registered as partners. It is often referred to as the "everything but marriage" bill, because it withholds only one state benefit -- perhaps the most important one -- from registered partners: That is, the right to call their relationship a marriage. That is a benefit that many domestic partners are anxious to have and which many social and religious conservatives want to keep from them.

Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), registered partners are denied the approximately 1,150 benefits, protections, etc. that the federal government automatically gives to opposite-gender married couples. The DOMA law has been ruled unconstitutional by a growing number of federal courts, and bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal DOMA.

Since Referendum 71 was passed, national polls have shown a surge in support for same-sex marriage (SSM) and a sudden dip in opposition. As one example, Gallup Inc. sampled public opinion in 2011-MAY and found that support had increased by 9 percentage points from 44% to 53% while opposition has decreased by 8 percentage points from 53% to 45% during the previous two years. We suspect that the sudden change was due to the influence of debate and passage of the federal hate-crimes law, and the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy of the military -- both of which granted equality to lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (LGB) and both of which generated considerable discussion in the media.

Jim Brunner, a political reporter for the Seattle Times commented on 2011-NOV-12:

"Now, gay-marriage backers say the time has come to take that final step. This week, they'll roll out a campaign to make Washington the seventh state to legalize marriage for lesbian and gay couples.

Leaders of Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of dozens of gay-rights, civil-liberties, labor and religious groups, say they'll pressure the Legislature to pass a marriage equality law in 2012, and are prepared to defend it from any referendum challenge. ..."

A group of Democratic state lawmakers has committed to introducing and advancing the legislation. While expressing confidence about their chances in the state House, backers cautioned they do not have the votes at this point in the state Senate." 1

State Senator Ed Murray, (D-Seattle) is openly gay and is a strong supporter of SSM. He said:

"We're going to push it. I believe 2012 is the best chance we've ever had to make marriage equality a reality." 1

State Senator. Dan Swecker, (R-Rochester) is a strong opponent of SSM. He said:

"I'd give them a 50-50 chance. My goal isn't to demonize anybody, but my assertion is we're all better off if we preserve marriage in its traditional form. At what point does the institution of one man and one woman become eroded to the point where all kinds of other alternatives exist?" 1

Actually, traditional marriage would be preserved even if the definition of marriage were changed to allow loving, committed same-sex couples to marry. Opposite-sex couples could still marry as before.

Brunner's article in the Seattle Times received 325 comments during the 72 hours when postings were allowed. As expected, those promoting marriage equality used the argument that same-sex couples contribute to society and pay taxes like opposite-sex couples; thus they should be given the same rights including the ability to marry. The familiar comment: "If you have a problem with same-sex marriage don't marry someone of the same sex as you" was repeated often. Those opposed to marriage equality referred to tradition, the fear of moral decline, and the suggestion that same-sex marriages are so different from opposite-sex marriages that they should not be called by the same name. 1

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Past redefinitions of marriage:

Marriage has been redefined three times in the history of the United States:

  • Prior to the Civil War, African Americans in many states were not allowed to marry. Marriage typically meant one white woman marrying one white man. After the civil war, the institution of marriage was redefined to include the union of a woman and man as long as they were of the same race.

  • By 1967, miscegenation laws in 16 states restricted marriage to a woman and a man of the same race. During that year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared all such laws unconstitutional, making interracial marriage between one man and one women legal.

  • In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same gender. By the end of 2011, a total of six states and the District of Columbia had legalized same-sex marriages, and a major drives are underway in Maryland and Washington State to do the same in 2012.

With each redefinition of marriage, there was a major outcry by people who wanted to keep the old restrictions in place. But with the passage of time, those voices have died down and the vast majority of adults see the redefinition of marriage to be an improvement. Whether this happens for same-sex marriage in the U.S. remains to be seen. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, and it quickly became a non-issue in that country.

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If the state government were to legalize SSM, could the law withstand a repeal referendum?

If a law were passed to legalize SSM, the Roman Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other conservative religious groups would be certain to mount a campaign to overturn the legislation with a referendum, like they unsuccessfully tried to do in 2009 with domestic partnerships. Alternately, if those legislators supporting and opposing marriage equality are roughly equal in numbers, the Seattle Times suggests that a compromise law might be passed that would require voters to confirm the law in a referendum before it is implemented. This raises the question: What are the chances that hypothetical same-sex marriage law would be accepted or rejected by the voters?

Nate Silver maintains the FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times web site. He specializes in the statistical analysis of political trends and campaigns. He has built statistical models that attempt "... to predict the percentage of the vote that gay marriage-related ballot initiatives would receive ..." in the District of Columbia and in each of the 50 states if they were held on election day in 2012-NOV. 

On 2011-JUN-29, Silver published an analysis for each state using two statistical techniques:

  • A linear model which assumes that the support for same-sex marriage increases at about the same rate every year, and

  • An accelerated model that uses the trend line from actual national polls on same-sex marriage. 

He wrote that the two models "... produce nearly identical estimates on the historical data, they diverge somewhat in their forecasts [of future data] because same-sex marriage appears to have gained support at a faster rate in the last couple of years." 2

His linear model predicts a 44.5% vote share for a hypothetical referendum banning same-sex marriage in Washington state on 2012-NOV. His accelerated model predicts a 40.4% vote share for the ban. Both models conclude that such a citizen initiative would have been "favored to be rejected." These results are virtually the same for Washington State, New York, and Rhode Island.

If same-sex marriage was approved by the voters as Silver predicts, the groups opposing marriage equality would lose one of their favorite talking points: that there have been about 30 plebiscites and constitutional amendments voted on in the various states, and all had gone against marriage equality. 

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This topic continues in the next essay ....

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References used in this essay:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jim Brunner, "New effort to legalize same-sex marriage begins," The Seattle times, 2011-NOV-12, at:
  2. Nate Silver, "The Future of Same-Sex Marriage Ballot Measures," FiveThirtyEight blog, 2011-JUN-29, at:

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Copyright 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2011-NOV-15
Latest update: 2011-NOV-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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