There have been a spate of opinion pieces here and here supporting Washington State's open government laws and highlighting Representative Reuven Carlyle's recently filed bill (HB 2418) clarifying that petition signatures are part of the public record and must remain so.Another recent online opinion piece also supported Government Open Records but took pains to distance themselves from what they see as potential "harassment" while ignoring the documented and pervasive harassment of same-sex couples and their families by organizations like Protect Marriage Washington. Comments at this online news source are restricted to 500 characters, so here is a response to this piece:
The drive to get Referendum 71 onto the ballot and overturn the most recent Domestic Partnership Rights expansion bill had only one practical outcome.
It was designed to hurt same-sex couples and their children (18% of same-sex couples in Washington are raising children under 18 years of age) by continuing discrimination that injures families and stripping away equal rights granted by the legislature.
The people of Washington State have a right to know who, acting as citizen legislators, is proposing legislation in our state that hurts families - and most especially legislation that discriminates against a minority. Washingtonians have had that right for many years and have exercised it several times with no ill effects or, indeed, much notice by the general public at all.
So how did we get here?
- In January 2006, after 29 long years of effort the legislature finally passed the most basic of civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, the Anderson Murray Civil Rights Bill (ESSHB 5688), which added "sexual orientation" to existing legislation that protects other minorities from employment, housing and financial discrimination.
- In February 2006, Tim Eyman filed Referendum 65 to overturn the anti-discrimination bill with the stated goal of prohibiting the state government from requiring any school, church, employer, or other public or private entity to impose quotas, set-asides or other preferential treatment to any individual or group based on sexual orientation and sexual preference. The justification for the referendum was that "The people do not support preferential treatment because the people do not want it to be used as a basis for requiring the legalization of same-sex marriage".
- In the 2007 legislative session, two bills were introduced (HB 2277 & HB 2255) into the Washington State legislature by Republican Representatives Chandler, Armstrong and Kretz, which would have made petition signatures secret by removing them from the public record. If bills like this were to pass the legislature it would allow a majority of Washington voters to advocate against minorities in secret with no transparency to prevent abuse of the initiative and referendum process. A frightenting and sobering possibility for a minority whose rights are routinely put to the vote in the wake of signature petition campaigns.
- Finally, in 2009 the Domestic Partnership expansion bill passed and Referendum 71 was duly filed to overturn the law granting couples in Domestic Partnerships, both gay and straight, the same state level rights and responsibilities that married couples enjoy. Once again, the broad justification for repealing the bill was to prevent the "legalization of same-sex marriage", an issue not covered by a simple expansion to the already existing domestic partnership scheme.
WhoSigned.org could have simply waited until after the referendum signatures had been submitted to request the names and announce that we would make the records made public and released by the Secretary of State accessible to the public. Then the discussion would have been about voters being "ambushed" because they didn't know that their petition signature was a matter of public record. Realistically, anti-gay groups would still have performed all the same legal maneuvers they've subsequently used here and in other states across the nation to hide their actions from the public and preventing disclosure.
In being open and announcing before signature gathering commenced, we were able to fulfill our goal to bring awareness of the public nature of petition signature records and the responsibility we all bear when signing them, and help drive unprecedented scrutiny of the signature verification and certification process for this hurtful and blatantly discriminatory referendum.
It's gratifying to know we are in complete accord on the value of reasoned and respectful debate as well as transparency. Intimidation and discrimination diminish us all, but most particularly when it comes wrapped in a referendum attacking the lives and families of people we love.
There is, however, an element of the discussion that Opinion pages like yours could spend more time and (virtual) ink on…
Voting on the rights of a minority is wrong. If a bill institutionalizing discrimination or restricting rights were to be proposed for any other ethnic, national or religious group the public would be rightly outraged and it would be quickly found to be unconstitutional.
Why is it not just acceptable, but expected that people get to vote on our rights? The public is now so in the habit of voting on what rights gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are allowed, that no one pauses to think about how immoral, how corrupting, and how fundamentally un-American it is to vote on any minorities rights.
Considering the future of our petition and initiative process as a tool for change, we need to think carefully about the kinds of issues and legislation it is best equipped to address. There is much to be learned from other jurisdictions like Washington D.C. where civil rights laws limit the ability of the majority to vote on restricting the rights of a minority.
We all know that one day there will be another initiative or referendum petition trying to roll back existing protections or, even further in the future, a newly passed marriage equality bill.
When that happens let’s hope that rather than focusing on shallow perceptions of the tactics or motives of either side, the Opinion pages instead focus on the morality of voting on minority rights and on what justice or injustice the public allows to be done to minority families in their name.
- Brian Murphy, Director - WhoSigned.org