OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington's gay marriage law was blocked from taking effect Wednesday, as opponents filed more than 200,000 signatures seeking a public vote on the issue in November.
Preserve Marriage Washington submitted the signatures just a day before the state was to begin allowing same-sex marriages. State officials will review the signatures over the next week to determine if proposed Referendum 74 will qualify for a public vote, though the numbers suggest the measure will make the ballot easily.
"The current definition of marriage works and has worked," said Joseph Backholm, the chair of Preserve Marriage Washington, as he stood next to stacked boxes of petitions.
The law, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year, would make Washington the seventh state to have legal same-sex marriages.
National groups have already promised time and money to fight the law, including the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which was involved in ballot measures that overturned same-sex marriage in California and Maine.
Gay marriage supporters, expecting that the referendum would qualify, have already been raising money to protect the law. Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, expects both sides to raise millions of dollars.
"It's fair to say it's going to be an extremely expensive race," Silk said.
The issue has implications on ballots across the nation.
President Barack Obama recently declared his support for gay marriage. In Washington state, the referendum has split the state's two candidates for governor. Maryland legalized gay marriage this year as well, but that state is also poised to have a public vote this fall.
Washington state has had domestic partnership laws since 2007 and in 2009 passed an "everything but marriage" expansion of that law, which was ultimately upheld by voters after a referendum challenge.
A poll by Seattle consulting firm Strategies 360 showed that 54 percent of voters in the state think it should be legal for same-sex couples to get married, though the poll didn't specifically ask them how they would vote on a referendum.
Perry Gordon lives in Roy but came to Olympia to watch the signature filing and to support gay marriage. He called gay marriage a matter of equality and encouraged Washington voters to consider their conscience.
"Would you want somebody to tell you that the only recognized marriage should be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman? How would you feel about that?" Gordon said in an interview.
Gordon is gay and said he'd like to get married at some point in the future.
Backholm, meanwhile, raised the specter of polygamy and marriage within families while making his case against gay marriage. He said the law would redefine marriage as it's been known for generations and suggested a possible slippery slope to other types of marriage.
"We have to think about the precedent we're creating," he said.
Gay marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.
The Washington secretary of state's office recommends that referendum campaigns submit about 150,000 signatures in order to provide a cushion for invalid or duplicate signatures. Backholm estimated the anti-gay marriage campaign was delivering about 240,000 signatures.
Associated Press writer Mike Baker can be reached on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/HiPpEV