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October 21, 2011

Washington state releases names of anti-gay petition signers

Olympia, Wash.--The state of Washington has released the names on a petition that forced a repeal vote on a statewide domestic partnership law, after a federal judge ruled that they are not exempt from public records laws.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle ruled October 17 against Protect Marriage Washington, the group behind an unsuccessful 2009 attempt to rescind the state’s domestic partner law. They claimed that revealing the names would expose the signers to harassment.

A day later, the state distributed DVDs to news organizations containing the 137,500 names of people who signed the petitions.

Protect Marriage had filed a suit against the Public Records Act provisions requiring the release of the names after Brian Murphy, a gay civil rights advocate, said that he would put the names on two websites that were used to post the names of people who had signed other anti-gay petitions. In some instances, the names were used to spot local businesspeople in various states who were then subject to boycotts; in other cases, people found out that they had been duped into signing petitions under false pretenses.

Protect Marriage listed many of their plaintiffs as “John Doe” to “protect” them from harassment. Settle named them all in his ruling, after the case was sent back to him by the U.S. Supreme Court. Included among them were Ken Hutcherson, the pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, and State Sen. Val Stevens.

“While plaintiffs have not shown serious and widespread threats, harassment, or reprisals against the signers of R-71 [the repeal measure], or even that such activity would be reasonably likely to occur upon the publication of their names and contact information, they have developed substantial evidence that the public advocacy of traditional marriage as the exclusive definition of marriage, or the expansion of rights for same sex partners, has engendered hostility in this state, and risen to violence elsewhere, against some who have engaged in that advocacy,” Settle wrote.

“This should concern every citizen and deserves the full attention of law enforcement when the line gets crossed and an advocate becomes the victim of a crime or is subject to a genuine threat of violence,” he continues in his ruling. “The right of individuals to speak openly and associate with others who share common views without justified fear of harm is at the very foundation of preserving a free and open society.”

“The facts before the court in this case, however, do not rise to the level of demonstrating that a reasonable probability of threats, harassment, or reprisals exists as to the signers of R-71, now nearly two years after R-71 was submitted to the voters in Washington State,” he concludes.

To an extent, Protect Marriage shot themselves in the foot in this case--without the names being released, they had no actual evidence of harassment against signers, while releasing the names would have made their claims moot.

It is another loss in this battle for anti-gay groups, often led by the National Organization for Marriage, who have refused to reveal their donors in a number of state anti-gay campaigns, although courts have ruled against them.

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