Jennifer Ducummon supports Referendum 74. Bob Higley opposes it. But the two have at least one thing in common: Neither thinks the legal recognition of same-sex marriage is as purely symbolic as it seems.
Both see practical implications in voters’ Nov. 6 decision: Ducummon, of Tumwater, hopes for improved health insurance coverage for her partner. Higley, of Olympia, fears legal jeopardy for Christians who want to choose their organizations’ participants and customers.
Only time will tell for sure if their predictions turn out to be well-founded. There are already numerous protections in Washington for gay and lesbian partners and prohibitions on discriminating against them. But same-sex marriage has played a role in some conflicts in other places in the country. And there is at least one major gap in the benefits enjoyed by domestic partners.
Questions about the practical consequences of R-74 are playing a role as the campaign heats up. In their campaign literature and in a speech at a recent campaign forum, opponents highlighted what has happened in other states. And in a new television commercial, supporters argue for the inadequacy of current protections.
Still, R-74’s most significant change lies in a word freighted with symbolism – marriage – and everything it means to voters straight and gay. The debate is between those who think the concept of marriage is in danger of being redefined, and those who believe some Washingtonians will be second-class citizens until they have the right to use the word.
Marriage “means you’re not a lesser family than any other family,” said Ducummon, 26, a 911 dispatcher whose partner has two daughters. “Your children have that feeling too, where they’re not feeling that they’re second-class, (that) their parents aren’t in a separate category.”
Opponents say there is a difference between straight and same-sex couples that shouldn’t be forgotten. “Two dads aren’t the same as a mother and father,” said Higley, 79, of Olympia.
Higley, who attends Westwood Baptist Church, bemoans how society is changing too fast. “It appears to me,” he said, “that we are contributing to the corruption of our culture by adopting same-sex marriage.”
Voters in 32 states have sided with opponents of same-sex marriage, most recently North Carolina, which wrote a ban this year into its state constitution. Where it is legal, it has taken court orders – in Massachusetts and Iowa – or legislative action, in Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia.
Voters in Maine, Maryland and here in Washington are all deciding whether to buck that trend and legalize same-sex unions. Minnesota voters are considering a constitutional ban.
In January, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced she would throw her support behind the gay-rights movement’s biggest goal. Support for same-sex marriage flooded in from businesses such as Microsoft, Starbucks and Nike, and from some legislators in both political parties who had been on the fence.
Barely more than a month after Gregoire’s announcement, the Democrat signed Senate Bill 6239 into law.
But opponents put the law on ice by gathering more than 240,000 voter signatures, ensuring voters would have the final say.
Washington became one of four battlegrounds this fall, drawing reinforcements from national groups the Human Rights Campaign, in support, and the National Organization for Marriage, in opposition.
Local opponents, organized under the banner of Preserve Marriage Washington, have raised $581,000, led by $120,000 from a retired Seattle couple, Thomas and Mary Matthews. More is expected by the time ads hit the television airwaves; the group has set a fundraising goal of $4 million.
But so far supporters, whose main group is Washington United for Marriage, have far outraised them. The group has collected $7.5 million, including $2.5 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife, which supporters say is likely the biggest gift ever to their cause. The campaign’s ads are airing on TV.
Washington has taken a gradual path to this moment.
In 2006, the Legislature expanded prohibitions against discrimination to include gays and lesbians. A year later it created domestic partnerships, giving the partners many of the rights of spouses in cases involving hospitalization or death of one partner. It expanded those rights over the next two years, and in 2009 voters signed off on the Legislature’s “everything but marriage” law.
Higley said Washington has climbed a slippery path.
“The homosexual community is never just satisfied with where they are. They keep going to the next level. … After they had all the benefits of marriage, now they want the word marriage as well. So the concern is, what’s their next step?” Higley said.
Anna Schlecht, a Washington United for Marriage organizer from Olympia, said the possibility of R-74 being adopted shows how far the gay-rights movement has come since she suffered insults and assaults decades ago for being a lesbian. “People can be who they are and not have to fight tooth and nail to be accepted,” she said.
Washington’s domestic partnerships are intended to provide all the benefits of marriage under state law, but there is at least one gap.
State insurance laws require domestic partners to be treated as spouses for insurance purposes. But some large companies and unions’ plans aren’t governed by state insurance regulations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Instead, they are regulated by federal law, and they are allowed to decide whether to offer equal benefits to partners.
Ducummon, who is covered through the Teamsters union, is in just such a situation.
The Lewis County 911 dispatcher said her health care plan doesn’t cover her domestic partner and her partner’s daughters. The benefits are subject to collective bargaining, and Ducummon said to get them, fellow members of her union would have to agree to pay more for their insurance.
Ducummon said the family had to pay entirely out-of-pocket for braces for her stepdaughter’s teeth. Co-workers have insurance that helps their spouses and kids, she said.
“It’s very frustrating to me,” Ducummon said, “because I pay the same out of pocket as (co-workers), yet I don’t get the same benefits.”
The labor department says that in a state that recognizes gay marriage, the self-funded plans would probably have to cover same-sex and opposite-sex spouses the same way.
“If the plan says that it covers spouses or legal spouses, that term is likely to be interpreted against the backdrop of state law,” Jason Surbey, a labor department spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “As a consequence, if the applicable state law treats a couple as legally married, the spouse would likely be covered under that plan provision.”
A state commission in New Jersey that examined the state’s civil unions for same-sex couples found similar gaps in insurance coverage, reporting that about half of all companies didn’t have to comply with laws requiring equal benefits for civil unions.
The commission, which recommended replacing civil unions with same-sex marriage, said calling the relationships marriage would improve coverage.
Another question raised about the referendum is its effect on religious groups and business owners.
Washington’s law spells out specific protections for religious officials, churches and faith-based social agencies, even though the First Amendment likely already shields them.
“A religious organization shall be immune from any civil claim or cause of action, including a claim pursuant to (anti-discrimination law), based on its refusal to provide accommodations, facilities, advantages, privileges, services, or goods related to the solemnization or celebration of a marriage,” the law says. Ministers, priests, imams and rabbis also are granted immunity from lawsuits for refusing to marry couples.
Higley, the R-74 opponent, said those exemptions sound good, since he had been worried that organizations such as religious camps would face lawsuits. Still, he and fellow critics worry the protections leave out others who don’t want anything to do with same-sex marriage.
The campaign against R-74 says, for example, that marriage counselors would have to serve same-sex couples regardless of beliefs. And it notes a lawsuit against a Vermont inn by lesbian brides wanting to have a wedding reception. The suit was settled last month when the inn agreed to pay $30,000 and stop hosting weddings and receptions.
“There are serious consequences if this referendum passes, including lawsuits against private businesses,” said Chip White, a spokesman for Preserve Marriage Washington who described the exemptions for religious groups as “political cover.”
Supporters say such cases are the exception that prove the rule.
“It’s all part of the fear that our opposition is trying to create,” said Cuc Vu, a Human Rights Campaign official from Washington, D.C., who is on loan to the campaign in Washington, where she grew up. “If you look at Massachusetts, life is fine. If you look at New York, life is fine.”
Vu said businesses have benefited, noting New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has estimated same-sex weddings in the first year of his state’s law had an economic impact of $259 million in the city.
The fact is, R-74 would not change laws affecting businesses. That means they would be subject, as they are now, to the state anti-discrimination law that bars them from refusing to serve gays and lesbians.
Anti-discrimination laws were at work in the Vermont case and in places where Catholic Charities has curtailed its work.
Catholic Charities of Boston shut down its work as an adoption agency rather than allow children to be placed with gay couples. However, Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., a city contractor, cited the city’s new marriage law when it ended its foster-care program.
Vu said the group was wrong to blame the marriage law for the “philosophical difference” it had with the city over same-sex couples’ suitability to be parents.
But Jodie Grandorff, a mother of three in Olympia, worries that charities will face similar problems here, if they are required to recognize same-sex couples as married. “Typically when adoption agencies place, they place (a child) with a married couple,” she said.
Grandorff said she wants to make sure her children are allowed to “live by their religious convictions and Christian beliefs.”
Lawsuits such as the one against the innkeepers appear rare in Vermont, whose exemptions for religious groups are similar to Washington’s. The executive director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission, Robert Appel, said he doesn’t remember any other complaints related to same-sex marriage besides those targeting the inn.
Similarly, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination said she hasn’t heard of an increase in lawsuits following the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples have their choice of plenty of businesses that welcome them, Barbara Green said.
Washington opponents also point to religious parents in Massachusetts who complained about the lessons their children were being taught in school. Those didn’t directly involve the marriage law but emerged from a “school system’s effort to educate its students to understand and respect gays, lesbians, and the families they sometimes form in Massachusetts, which recognizes same-sex marriage,” a federal judge wrote.