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What’s in a word: the ‘redefinition’ of marriage

Marriage equality

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.


  • 1. Sagesse  |  March 7, 2012 at 9:18 am


  • 2. Gregory in SLC  |  March 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

    I'm with you Ann GGGGRRRRrrrr!!!!

  • 3. Alan_Eckert  |  March 7, 2012 at 9:41 am


  • 4. peterplumber  |  March 7, 2012 at 9:56 am

    So I did as I was told and googled "redefining marriage". I found the oppositions battle plan. Check this out!!!

  • 5. Fr. Bill  |  March 7, 2012 at 10:21 am

    It should come as no surprise that Washington's Attorney General, Rob McKenna, is a Republican. It is an old joke in politics that the NAAG (National Association of Attorneys General) should more accurately be called the National Association of Aspiring Governors. McKenna is throwing out some red meet for his religious right base. Unfortunately, he considers the civil rights and human dignity of the State's gay and lesbian citizens to be political red meat. The Solicitor General is appointed by the AG and does what her boss wants her to do.

  • 6. AnonyGrl  |  March 7, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Hey, I am all for them sitting at home or in their churches praying to their hearts' content. I hope they pray their BUTTS off. I also hope that they let GOD take it from there. If she wants all those things to happen, once everyone has prayed about it, I hope they sit back and let her do something about it.

    However, if THEY try to legislate on what they THINK she wants, I am strongly opposed.

  • 7. Gregory in SLC  |  March 7, 2012 at 10:56 am

    FYI….as per AFER mail blast, the L.A. "8" production avail on line just until Saturday night:

    We created “8” because people need to know the truth about what happened when fear and prejudice were put on trial. Anti-marriage forces blocked the American people from seeing what actually happened during the Federal District Court trial of Prop. 8. Now, Dustin Lance Black’s powerful play—based on the actual court transcripts—has been seen by people around the world.

    Thanks to Google and YouTube, the Los Angeles premiere reading of “8” was streamed live and already has over 600,000 views. If you missed it, you can still watch the recording until Saturday night.

  • 8. Seth from Maryland  |  March 7, 2012 at 11:02 am

    The latest PPP polling shows an incredible turnaround from the results of the 2009 "people's veto" of the marriage equality law passed in 2009 by the Maine Legislature.

    Registered voters now favor marriage equality by a margin of 13%, 54% – 41%, whereas in 2009 they rejected same-sex marriage by 6%, 47% – 53%, a swing of an amazing 19% in three years. Of course polls are not election results, and Maine Marriage Equality groups need to keep the pedal to the metal to insure victory for their referendum in November, but there is no doubt that this is a tremendous turnaround in public opinion
    GO Maine

  • 9. Seth from Maryland  |  March 7, 2012 at 11:35 am

    a lovely straight couple against the minnesota marriage adm, its worth a watch

  • 10. Bob  |  March 7, 2012 at 11:51 am

    that is very well said AnonyGrl,,, excellent expression how separattion of Church and State could, and should work,,,,, very very well said,,,,,

  • 11. Taki  |  March 7, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Ah, so they would prefer traditional marriage: between one man and as many women as he can afford to buy from their fathers.

  • 12. Walter  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Does anyone know if the legal briefs for the Washington court case on the ballot title are available for download?

  • 13. Bob  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    thanks for that video Seth,,, I really love all of it but the striking part for me was the first few minutes,,, where they say marriage is hard work,,, it's about the other,,, this realy strikes home for me,, being 14 yrs in a relationship,, legally married for the last three,,,, and really I get that or should say WE, get the hard work part,, cause that is what's left after the romance honeymoon part is gone,,, one realizes that you have to give up part of yourself in order to further advancce a greater good of the relationship or MARRIAGE which becomes really what it is about now,,, there is no mor I but it i WE,,, together,,, and evryone outside looking in sees you as a couple,,,, personallly we are at that place of struggling with the hard work of maintaing a Marriage,,,,, everyone better think about that,,,

  • 14. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Are my posts not showing up here?

  • 15. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Okay that one did.

  • 16. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    But my longer post doesn't want to go through.


  • 17. Bob  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    good work on behalf of marriage eqaulity advocates in Washington,,,, they are on top of it,,,,, they got to strike that wording from the referendum,,,,,,

  • 18. bythesea  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    What did you write about? If it was slightly inflammatory in some way it may have been declined.

  • 19. MightyAcorn  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    As someone who deals with the definition of marriage on a daily basis, this nonsense irks me no end. I always relish opportunities to point out that "marriage is between a man and a woman" doesn't define marriage at all, it merely lists the participants (after all, there are LOTS of things that could be between a man and a woman–a ping-pong game, heated argument or oh, an adulterous affair or rancorous divorce.) Ask these people to really define marriage and oft as not they stand ther with their jaws slack….because they really haven't a clue what it is.

  • 20. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    It wasn't at all inflammatory. This appears to have happened twice already. It posts, and makes it appear as though it posted okay, but then when you refresh the page it's gone.

  • 21. devon  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    The judge will approve language that is beneficial to the anti-equality forces.
    All the judicial and legislative victories for equality have been put on hold to allow the haters to appeal and delay. This will be more of the same, I fear. DOMA is still fully in effect despite numerous findings of it's unconstitutionality, and no marriages can be performed in MD or WA until the haters have their say.

  • 22. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Hmmm. Is it more than one carriage return?



  • 23. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Is it using single quotes like 'this' ?

  • 24. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Actually, more than "making equal rights sound like extra rights" by using the word 'redefine', it makes it sound like this is something that will CHANGE the existing marriages of straight couples.

    That is the REAL power in their use of that word.

  • 25. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Instead of 'including' same-gender couples into the civil institution of marriage, it is going to be changed for everyone, we are going to redefine what marriage is.

    What the wording should say is: "This bill would expand the eligible participants of civil marriage to include same-gender couples, while reiterating existing law that clergy may always refuse to solemnize or recognize any marriages they disagree with and that strictly religious organizations may refuse to accommodate whichever marriage celebrations they choose."

  • 26. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Note I also changed same-sex to same-gender. The opponents of equality love to use the word 'sex' where it refers to gender. They want to plant the idea of gay sex into voters minds, so they will focus on something that might personally disconcert them as straight people, instead of focusing on the whole of gay people, gay couples and their families lives and how marriage discrimination effects them.

  • 27. Glen  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Well I broke it up into pieces below, and that seemed to work.

    If I included JUST the first line of the first reply into the first post it won't go through. Strange.

  • 28. bythesea  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    No offense, but that seems based mainly on personal pessimism than anything fact-based. There is no expectation that the courts will generally be trying to tip things in our favor, nor in the disfavor of our opponents, and it is better to disallow marriages until an issue is actually resolved rather than having them nullified after the fact (which creates many legal difficulties and headaches aside from being unjust).

  • 29. bythesea  |  March 7, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I'm not sure, but I have on occassion had failed posts too and don't know what the common denominator was.

  • 30. Steven B  |  March 7, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Instead of saying that the bill would change the marriage LAW in Washington State, or even redefine the word "marriage" within Washington State LAW, it is phrased as if the institution of marriage itself is being changed, as if to have world-wide effect. It is rhetorical slight of hand.

  • 31. Bryce  |  March 8, 2012 at 12:41 am

    Do we have transcript of argument? Any of the filings?

  • 32. Sheryl_Carver  |  March 8, 2012 at 7:09 am

    I LOVE that response, MightyAcorn!

    It might even get make some people actually THINK instead of just stupidly repeating NOM's sound-bites.

  • 33. Leo  |  March 8, 2012 at 8:25 am

    That may be, but isn't sex more accurate? If I'm not mistaken, the pre-equality law turns on legal sex, not on gender. A woman in a man's body can already marry another woman, but not a man.

  • 34. MightyAcorn  |  March 8, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Thank you Sheryl, one does one's best. :)

    If I can then follow up with the slack-jawed person about what the definition of marriage actually is –the legal establishment of family member status with a person who is a legal stranger, not unlike adoption–and how, due to the extreme social and intrafamily stigma that often results in hostility, neglect, and violence against gay individuals, this relation is needed even more by LGBT citizens for their own protection. Since I have spent some time volunteering in end-of-life care, I can relate real stories of how hospitalized LGBT people are, if unable to marry, vulnerable to horrible abuse by their vengeful and often religiose next-of-kin, and how marriage ensures their medical wishes will be carried out in a dignified manner by someone who loves them.

    If I really want to zing someone, I'll mention a client of mine who went undercover to one of these faith/hate group meetings–sadly, it was quite well-attended– where she actually heard a speaker say her gay son had been killed in a car accident and he was better off dead even though he was in Hell. His own MOTHER said this. Is this the person you want making health-care decisions for you when you can't speak for yourself? Yet, if you are forced to remain unmarried, this horrible woman would have a legal right to do just that. Wrong wrong WRONG.

    So marriage for all NOW, please. Every day without it humans are suffering in precisely this way. If it were being "redefined" who would want it, or need it? Anyone who wants to marry, to establish legal family status with another adult they love, should be able to do so for their own health and safety. Same definition, same rights.

    Thank you, I now return you to your regularly-scheduled comment thread.

  • 35. New  |  March 8, 2012 at 8:47 am

    As the end of slavery did not redefine what freedom is.
    The reason opponents of marriage equality like to use the word “redefine” is because it makes marriage equality sound sinister and threatening when it is NOT.
    Since they lack in evidences, they have to put up a spectacle to try to awe their audiences. It's just a sound+vision trick as in an elaborated magician's show.
    Hope Judge McPhee won't fall for the trick. Bad enough this Referendum is even allowed.

  • 36. Mandi  |  March 9, 2012 at 12:31 am

    "Thank Him for giving the distinct, irreplaceable gifts a mom and a dad each uniquely bring to children,
    through marriage."
    Do they plan on requiring personality tests prior to allowing a male/female wedding to ensure that the participants are indeed at opposite ends of the gender spectrum?
    I am in a heterosexual marriage with 4 children (all of whom are our 'natural' children). I felt I needed to find a 'real' woman to come assist in the raising of my children (all girls) since I don't have a feminine bone in my body. I have absolutely no clue when it comes to fashion and am just as likely to allow the children to wear stripes and poka-dots to school, as well as shorts and long sleeve shirts, as their father is. I see absolutely no problem with anything they deem to wear as long as it a) covers everything it's supposed to cover and b) is clean. This however has caused some issues with the local school who thinks we (mainly me, the mother) lack parenting skills. I also have no clue about hair and makeup. I have found a friend who is more than happy to teach my VERY feminine girls all about hair and makeup and who they can go shopping with. (Not so much the fashion though since I still feel that as long as they're covered, they should be in charge of what they look like 😛 told the school that too) And it's always funny to see my mother stop by for a visit as the kids get home, "You let them go to school in THAT?"
    My point of course is that if anyone where to 'test' us as parents without asking what our sex is, we'd both come up decidedly male. There are many, many men that are far more feminine than I'll ever be. And I really don't see a problem with that either.

  • 37. captain magpie  |  September 19, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    no because a "voter" is not gender specific. Women may not have been able to 'vote' in elections but they could for example 'vote'. The definition of a voter makes no reference to gender.

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