SPOKANE — Washington conservatives hailed victory this month by collecting double the signatures needed to send the state’s same-sex marriage bill to voters in the upcoming general election. Although leaders from Preserve Marriage Washington are confident residents will vote to keep marriage between a man and a woman, a wild card lies in their path — one worth more than 4 million votes.
According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census more than half of the state’s 6,830,038 residents don’t belong to a religious group. Preserve Marriage Washington, the organization behind the gay marriage petition (Referendum 74), is a coalition of community and faith groups, including the Washington Catholic Conference.
“Almost 4.4 million people are unclaimed, so that’s the group, that if they vote, will decide this referendum,” said Patricia O’Connell Killen, author of “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,” and academic vice president at Gonzaga University. “Any political issue, whether it passes or fails, depends on how the vast majority of these un-churched are persuaded.”
She said Evangelical and Catholic leaders in Washington are actively working to overturn the same-sex marriage law, adding it’s impossible to know how much influence they have over the “un-churched.”
Joseph Backholm, chairman of Preserve Marriage Washington, said although churches were active in collecting signatures, support came from various locations and organizations and said there’s no way to know how many of the signatures came from the state’s unaffiliated population.
“I think there’s a collective wisdom about this subject, a common understanding of what marriage is, and there’s plenty of un-churched people who look at this passionately and conclude that marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
Washington has had a domestic partnership law since 2007. In 2009 an “everything but marriage” expansion of that law was passed, allowing same-sex domestic partners the same rights and benefits that Washington state offers married couples.
Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage (a group advocating same-sex marriage), said the conservative movement is stronger and more energized this time around.
“They have a very impressive track record of winning these campaigns and we expect them to spend millions to roll back the law,” Silk said.
Backholm said it’s a stronger energy because redefining marriage is a grander issue.
“People in Washington want to treat people fairly, want them to have the same access to freedom and health care and everything else, but that doesn’t mean we have to redefine marriage. That doesn’t mean children don’t deserve a mother and a father,” he said.
His campaign plans to spend the summer talking to registered voters about the issue.
Members of Silk’s campaign also plan to talk with voters about the legislation.
“We’re talking to voters every day about how marriage is a basic freedom that should not be denied to anyone,” he said. “It’s true that there are many in the state who do not attend church or affiliate with any religion, but we know that we need to remind all Washingtonians that treating others as one would want to be treated is a common value regardless ….”
A recent poll conducted by Strategies 360, out of Seattle, reported 54 percent of voters in the state think it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry.
Silk said he’s encouraged by the figures, but added that gay marriage supporters are the underdogs.
In 32 states that have held elections on gay marriage, voters have sided with those opposed to same-sex unions.
Tracy Simmons is the editor of SpokaneFAVS.com. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SpokaneFAVS
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of SpokaneFāVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.