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New gay marriage law likely to be challenged

Although Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the same-sex marriage bill into law this past Monday, it is unlikely to go into effect until it has gone before Washington state voters.

Opponents of the law have already filed Referendum 74 and need to collect the more than 120,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot. If the signatures are collected, the law will not take effect until and unless it has been approved by voters.

In the meantime, though, there is a little confusion about what the law actually does and, more importantly, how it will affect the average person in Washington.

The new law

The law essentially does three things.

The best known piece of the law strips all gender specific language from the marriage laws in the revised code of Washington. At the same time it will also redefine "domestic partnership" to be a very specific type of relationship that has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

The law also will offer protection to any religion that does not want to perform marriages that conflict with the organization's beliefs.

Lastly, the law clarifies that officials of religions other than Christianity are allowed to legally perform marriages.

Existing laws

On Dec. 3, 2009, Washington state voters approved the passage of a law that gave domestic partnerships an equal status with marriage.

The "everything but marriage" bill was passed by legislators and signed by the governor, then put before voters, who also approved it. The law gave domestic partnerships the exact same rights as marriages in the state of Washington. The only thing lacking was the word "marriage" and the symbolism attached to it.

The new law will classify existing same-sex domestic partnerships as marriages, but will not change any of the laws concerning those unions.

All laws prohibiting discrimination against such couples, except for new protections for religions, will remain exactly as they currently are written.

New protections

The law adds wording to defend religions and religious institutions from performing marriages.

The law states "No state agency or local government may base a decision to penalize, withhold benefits from, license, or refuse to contract with any religious organization based on the opposition to or refusal to provide accommodations, facilities, advantages, privileges, service, or goods related to the solemnization or celebration of a marriage."

In addition, a new section is added by the law that states the term "religious organization" must be interpreted liberally, and includes faith-based social service organizations.

Clarifying religion

Perhaps the largest change the law will make, and the one most overlooked, is the clarification of religion in the role of marriage.

The law gives a new definition of "religious organization" to include more potential religious beliefs.

According to the law, a religious organization "includes, but is not limited to, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, non-denominational ministries, inter-denominational and ecumenical organizations, mission organizations, faith-based social agencies and other entities whose principal purpose is the study, practice or advancement of religion."

It also changes all occurrences in existing marriage law of "any regularly licensed or ordained minister or any priest of any church or denomination" to say "any regularly licensed or ordained minister or any priest, imam, rabbi, or similar official of any religious organization," thus allowing officials of religions other than Christianity to conduct marriage ceremonies.

What comes next

Now that the governor has signed the bill into law, opponents have until June 6, 2012 to collect 120,577 valid signatures to put the issue before voters as a referendum. If they do not collect the signatures, the law will go into effect on June 7.

If the law goes before voters, it will not take effect unless and until voters approve it.

In addition to the referendum, an initiative has been proposed that would define marriage as being between one man and one woman.

The effect of the law

Technically, nothing will change except the name of existing contracts. Realistically, the symbolism involved in the word "marriage" may cause problems for some businesses.

Under current law, no venue can discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to hold a ceremony. Nor can any supplier of wedding supplies, catering or photography refuse to provide their services to a same-sex couple solely due to their sexual orientation.

The difference will be in how people perceive the ceremony. Now that the ceremony will be solemnizing a marriage as opposed to a domestic partnership, the likelihood is higher that people will want to refuse service on religious grounds.

Another business that may be hit hard is the newspaper industry. Many newspaper publishers in conservative areas may lose subscribers and advertisers if they choose to run same-sex wedding notices.

However, the issue has already cropped up across the United States at various newspapers. Some editors have refused to run such notices while others accept any and all.

A Dallas newspaper was challenged under the city's anti-discrimination laws for not running a notice, despite such unions not being legal in Texas. The newspaper eventually changed its policy to allow such notices.

As with other businesses, the legality of refusing same-sex wedding announcements is not changed due to the new law, meaning newspapers would be required to publish such notices because of the existing anti-discrimination laws.

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