March 7, 2012
By Jacob Combs
As the Seattle Times reports, Judge Thomas McPhee of Thurston County heard arguments yesterday at a 9 a.m. hearing regarding the proposed language of Washington’s Referendum 74, the ballot initiative to repeal the state’s marriage equality bill that was signed into law last month.
In Washington state, it falls to the Solicitor General’s office (part of the Attorney General’s office) to keep ballot language understandable, brief and impartial. When the proposed lagnaguge to Referendum 74 was released in Febraury, parties on both sides of the issue filed briefs in opposition with the court. The most significant language battle, however, has come down to one word: “redefine.”
In the Solicitor General’s February proposal, the ballot language read:
This bill would REDEFINE MARRIAGE to allow same-sex couples to marry, modify existing domestic-partnership laws, allow clergy to refuse to solemnize or recognize marriages and religious organizations to refuse to accommodate marriage celebrations.
In opposing this language, marriage equality advocates in Washington have argued that the phrase “redefine marriage” does not even appear in the marriage bill that passed the legislature last month, and is in fact a politically charged buzzword used by anti-marriage equality forces to obfuscate the issue. (Try googling ‘redefine marriage’ and seeing what kind of sites show up.)
Although the Attorney General’s office has sided with the opponents of marriage equality on this point, there’s reason to be hopeful that Judge McPhee will not approve the proposed language. Washington law states that a ballot initiative should “not — to the extent reasonably possible — create prejudice either for or against the measure.” Because of this, it is likely that he could rule the ballot’s wording must be more neutral. Judge McPhee’s ruling, when released, will be final.
As always, it’s important to note how much of an impact one word can have when it comes to marriage equality. The reason opponents of marriage equality like to use the word “redefine” is that it makes marriages between gays and lesbians seem distinct from those between heterosexual couples. It walls off marriage behind a semantic barrier, making equal rights sound like extra rights. Although it has been said before, it begs repeating that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is no more a “redefinition” of marriage than extending the vote to women was a “redefinition” of the right to vote. Words matter, and the language of Referendum 74 will no doubt have a big impact come November.