A campaign to roll back gay rights that kicked off in Washington state over the weekend has split the Christian conservative community, with some wondering whether it is the right time for a fight and others arguing that time may be running out.
On the heels of the recent California Supreme Court ruling that upheld Proposition 8's prohibition against same-sex marriage, conservative groups here began collecting signatures for a ballot referendum to block a new Washington state law that substantially expands rights for domestic partners.
The law that Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire signed in May has been dubbed the "everything but marriage" bill. When it takes effect in July, it will expand previous domestic partnership laws to include issues like adoption, child support, pensions and other public-employee benefits.
Washington's secretary of state approved the referendum petitions Friday and signature collections began over the weekend. If referendum backers collect 120,577 signatures by July 25, the law would be suspended pending a vote in November.
But some conservatives fear that public support for domestic partnership rights and a preoccupation with the economy could doom the effort -- and make it harder to battle same-sex marriage down the road.
"My concern is, in running a referendum, you're not really going to win," said the Rev. Joe Fuiten, founder of Positive Christian Agenda. "All you accomplish is you divide up the community and really alienate a lot of people from the church and from the gospel."
Fuiten recently circulated an e-mail asking Christian conservatives to consider the downside of picking this fight when polls show that most Washingtonians favor broad equal rights for domestic partners -- although they may feel differently about gay marriage.
An October poll by the University of Washington's Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality showed that 21% of those surveyed said there should be no legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples. But 37% supported same-sex marriage, and another 29% said same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals -- adding up to a 66% majority.
"I think we can win on the marriage issue, but if we deplete our capital of money and goodwill in a failed referendum, we will not have the strength to win the marriage battle," Fuiten wrote in his e-mail.
Yet referendum backers argue that public momentum is on their side.
"It's the last incremental step to gay marriage for gay activists," said Gary Randall, president of the Faith & Freedom Network, who is helping coordinate the signature campaign.
"We're not trying to take anything from anyone. We're simply trying to defend and keep marriage as it has always been throughout all of human history."
California, Oregon, New Jersey, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia have laws offering same-sex couples substantial partnership rights. A handful of states, most recently New Hampshire, allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Larry Stickney of the Washington Values Alliance, who also backs the referendum, told Fuiten that the recession could help defeat the law because more people were turning to religion after losing their jobs.
He also predicted that passage of a federal hate crimes law this year could introduce legal roadblocks to campaigning against same-sex partnerships.
"We may be running out of time to address this issue without fear of jail time," he responded to Fuiten's e-mail.
Supporters of the law expanding gay partnership rights aren't taking anything for granted.
"We're taking this threat very, very seriously," said Josh Friedes, campaign manager for Washington Families Standing Together, which has gathered support from labor unions, religious communities, immigration and civil rights groups.
He said the domestic partnership law provided barely a quarter of the rights available to regular married couples. For example, same-sex couples would not be able to file a joint federal income tax return.
"We're in this incredible economic crisis in the state of Washington, we're seeing unbelievable cuts to social services, and it's pretty shocking that during this downturn we would see organizations who are making it their priority taking away rights from families, and who are going to be forcing people to spend millions of dollars on a campaign to preserve their rights," Friedes said.
A "Decline to Sign" campaign already has garnered support from 30,000 Washington residents.
Another group, taking a chapter from tactical playbooks in California and Oregon, has started a website on which it has vowed to publicize the names of those who sign petitions in favor of the referendum to block the partnership law.
Randall, of the petition campaign, said people had already contacted him out of concern that they might be turned down for a job if their signing became public.
But, he said, "It has also had a positive effect, in the sense that we've probably received 800 to 1,000 e-mails from people who have seen the news coverage and said . . . 'Now I'm going to sign it because they're not going to intimidate me.' "
Friedes said that mainstream gay rights groups opposing the referendum had no connection to the "who signed" website, adding that it could harm the gay rights cause.
"Our goal is to . . . create a civil discourse that focuses on meeting the needs of Washington families," he said. "And instead, I think what we're seeing is . . . a very small set of people on both sides of the issues who are yelling at each other."