OLYMPIA—A gay civil rights law that was defeated quietly in the Legislature for decades before passing by a single vote this year has become the defining political issue of the year, with battle lines drawn and rhetoric ready for a campaign to overturn the new law.
As gay rights activists await a state Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, they also are combining forces to fight two ballot measures that would erase the measure that adds "sexual orientation" to a state law that bans discrimination in housing, employment, insurance and credit.
Opponents are already setting the stage to make the debate about homosexuality.
"Right and wrong will be a part of it," said Joseph Fuiten, a Bothell pastor who is chair of Faith & Freedom Network, an organization that opposed the bill. "Is this a behavior we ought to protect or we ought to cure? I would say homosexuality is something that ought to be cured."
On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the measure that adds "sexual orientation" to a state law that bans discrimination in housing, employment, insurance and credit.
The amendment to current law makes Washington the 17th state to adopt such laws covering gays and lesbians and the seventh to protect transgender people.
A referendum seeking to overturn the law has already been filed, with opponents saying that the law gives preferential treatment to the gay community and is a signal to the state Supreme Court on the gay marriage issue.
The same day Gregoire signed the bill, the Faith & Freedom Network sent out an e-mail to reporters that linked homosexuality to increased violence, a move gay-rights activists call a thinly veiled smear campaign.
Fran Dunaway, executive director of Equal Rights Washington, said such attacks make it clear that there's a need for the anti-discrimination law.
"I do know that increased attacks from anti-gay extremists leads to a more hostile environment for gays and lesbians, and I don't think the vast majority of Washington citizens will tolerate that," Dunaway said.
Dunaway said several groups are already coordinating to fight the initiative and referendum campaign.
Those opposed to the bill argue that the law imposes one set of moral principles on others and that it opens the door to gay marriage. They cite a recent case in Maryland where a judge knocked down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, citing the state's anti-discrimination law. Both sides there are waiting to see if the Court of Appeals upholds or overturns the decision.
The Washington state Supreme Court heard arguments on a case challenging Washington's ban on gay marriage last year, and a ruling is expected soon.
"The timing of this bill, the way it was driven through right as the court was considering this, it was intended to be a clear message to the Supreme Court," said Sen. Brad Benson, R-Spokane. "I don't think the state Supreme Court acts in a bubble."
But court watchers say the gay-marriage case is a constitutional issue and that a new state law won't affect how the court rules.
"Our state Supreme Court is very methodical," said Hugh Spitzer, a Seattle attorney and affiliate professor at theUniversityof Washington's School of Law. Spitzer wrote a brief on behalf of the parties challenging the ban.
"It takes the time it needs to come to a consensus and to draft the various opinions that need to be drafted. They don't get pushed around, period," Spitzer said.
While most gay-rights activists acknowledge they hope the court rules in their favor on marriage, they insist the anti-discrimination law is a completely separate issue.
Just to be safe, Republicans amended the bill on the House floor to say that it would not modify or change state marriage laws.
A Senate amendment added a caveat saying the state doesn't endorse "any specific belief, practice, behavior, or orientation."
Pollster Stuart Elway said a January poll he conducted showed 55 percent of those polled were against gay marriage, but a 2004 survey showed a majority of people favor health insurance and Social Security benefits, as well as civil unions, for same-sex couples. In an October 2005 poll, 65 percent said homosexuality was a way of life and should be accepted, Elway said.
"The bright red line seems to be at the definition of marriage," he said.
The challenge to the ban on gay marriage was raised after Massachusetts, in May 2004, became the first state in the nation to allow same-sex marriages. Portland, Ore., and San Francisco briefly offered marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in 2004 before courts blocked them.
Last July, Canada legalized gay marriage, becoming the fourth nation — along with the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain — to grant full legal rights to same-sex couples.
State lawmakers acknowledge that the marriage issue is touchier. While most Democrats supported the gay civil rights bill, there's no consensus on marriage.
"Within the Legislature and within the larger community, the views are very diverse,"saidSenate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.
"People are asking, 'What are civil unions compared to full marriage equality? What are other states doing?'" said Brown, D-Spokane. "I think we've got that ahead of us, but that conversation is going to be delayed until we see what the court says."
For Bonnie Aspen of Spokane, who never felt she could come out while she was a public school teacher for more than a decade in Oregon, the new law is a big step for gays and lesbians in the state.
Aspen, who's been with her partner for nearly 27 years, said the fact that discussions on marriage and civil rights are dovetailing this year means the public is "beginning to recognize that love is love."
"Being gay is only one part that makes up who I am," she said. "All of these years of work and education have culminated into right now. When I really contemplate it, that I get to be here in Washington, and I get to be part of that, I am just humbled and absolutely astounded."
— The Associated Press