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Reverse Backlash

Lack of Support for Eyman Referendum Stings Anti–Gay Rights Effort

Eli Sanders
BLACK EYMAN Tim Eyman as Darth Vader

Tim Eyman believed the power of this state's religious right would deliver him the 112,000 signatures he needed by Tuesday, June 6, in order to get an anti-gay referendum on the November ballot. Washington's religious right believed in its power, too, and in particular it believed in the members of the more than 5,000 churches that participated in "Referendum Sunday," a day of pulpit-backed politicking that organizers said would put Eyman's R-65 petition to repeal Washington's gay civil rights law before 500,000 voters.

In the end, only 105,000 of those voters signed on in support of R-65, a stinging rejection of an effort Eyman promoted with his trademark hyper-confidence, and a sign that Washington's religious right, far from being an intimidating statewide force that should make legislators cower on gay rights issues, is in fact something of a paper tiger.

"The failure of Eyman and the fundamentalist networks to collect enough signatures after three months of trying is a credit to the people of Washington State," said Anne Levinson, Chair of the Washington Won't Discriminate Campaign, the group that had organized to fight Eyman's referendum, cheering the news on Tuesday. But as the faces of Eyman and the Christian right leadership showed at the secretary of state's office in Olympia, their failure was also a discredit to their movement.

Eyman, unshaven, frustrated, and still wearing a blue "Let the Voters Decide" T-shirt, muttered unhappily to himself as the R-65 petitions trickled in during the hour leading up to the 5:00 p.m. deadline. "Jesus," he said at one point, looking at the tiny stack of petitions that had arrived by 4:30—a remark that only highlighted the bizarre marriage of convenience that has existed between Eyman and the religious right over the last few months. It was a marriage that both sides seemed relieved to be ending. Gary Randall, president of the Faith & Freedom Network, maneuvered out of a television-camera shot that seemed to have both him and Eyman in it, later scolding the camerawoman for picturing the two of them together.

"It's been an interesting journey," Randall said of his experience working with Eyman, who on Monday, a day before the signature-gathering deadline, had dressed up as Darth Vader and held a phony press conference at the secretary of state's office in which he and his cohorts gloated about having "duped" the press into thinking he was turning in R-65 signatures one day early. Asked if he was frustrated by Eyman's attention-getting and ultimately unsuccessful tactics, Randall told a reporter, "Aren't you? Clearly there are some issues there."

Both the religious leaders and Eyman had pushed R-65 by claiming, falsely, that it would prevent gay marriage from coming to Washington. In fact, the referendum was intended to repeal the state's new gay civil rights law, which passed earlier this year and protects homosexuals from being fired from a job or denied housing based on their sexuality. With R-65's backers having failed to gather enough signatures, the civil rights law took effect on Wednesday, with Governor Christine Gregoire hailing it as "a proud day in Washington." But by conflating the gay civil rights law with the gay marriage issue, Eyman and the religious right may find themselves hoist with their own petard of misinformation.

If the members of the religious right in Washington can't be bothered to sign a petition when they're told that signing will help prevent gay marriage from being legalized here, why should legislators be so worried about backlash from people of faith if they come out in favor of gay marriage?

"That's the question I don't want you to ask," Randall told me on Tuesday, looking grim. "Because I don't know the answer to that."

Interestingly, the failure on Tuesday of those trying to repeal the gay civil rights bill through a popular vote recalled the 1997 effort by gay rights advocates to pass initiative I-677, which would have given Washington a gay civil rights law via the initiative process. I-677 backfired by failing spectacularly and sending Washington's gay rights movement into years of self-doubt and infighting. This year's attempt to let the people decide the gay rights issue backfired on antagonists of gay rights and gay marriage. Almost 10 years later, it seems, the pendulum has swung all the way over to the other side.

"2006 is not the same as 1997," said John Vezina, campaign manager for Washington Won't Discriminate. "The country—and Washington State is part of this country—has come a long way in recognizing that gay and lesbian people are born that way, and this is not a choice, and we should not be discriminated against based on our sexual orientation."

eli@thestranger.com

 

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