King County Executive Ron Sims is for gay marriage.

Not only that, but his spokesperson, Elaine Kraft, says Sims "does not support discrimination at all in marriage," and therefore the county exec is opposed to President Bush's plan to write marriage discrimination into the U.S. Constitution via an amendment banning same-sex unions. And not only that: Kraft adds that her boss is a man who will do the right thing in tough situations, even if it might cost him politically. "Ron Sims is the kind of elected official who does what's right as opposed to what's politically expedient," she says. "Discrimination is, let me tell you, a very personal thing to him, and he abhors discrimination."

And yet Sims, the man who "abhors discrimination" and "does what's right," even if it's not "politically expedient," apparently plans to sit out the current culture war over gay marriage. The fight over gay marriage is fundamentally a fight over discrimination; at stake is whether our society will be allowed to carry on discriminating against gay and lesbian couples by refusing to legally recognize their relationships. Yet this principled politician, a proponent of gay rights, will not use his power as county executive--power that includes the authority to issue marriage licenses--to fight the main obstacle to gay marriage in this state? He won't stand up and challenge the 1998 Washington law that blatantly discriminates against gay and lesbian couples here, denying them marriage licenses along with more than a thousand legal rights and protections that come with civil marriage?

You would expect, based on the pronouncements of his spokesperson (to say nothing of the impassioned speeches Sims has given at various gay events and rallies over the last decade), that Sims would be following in the footsteps of other elected officials around the country who have actually backed up their pro-gay talk with action. When he announced last week that he would begin performing same-sex marriages, Jason West, the mayor of New Paltz, New York, called it his "moral obligation" and said he was taking a stand because--like Sims--he abhors discrimination. ("We as a society have no right to discriminate in marriage any more than we have the right to discriminate when someone votes or when someone wants to hold office," West told Newsday.) When John Shields, the mayor of Nyack, New York, announced last week that he would recognize gay marriages, he said he was doing so because--like Sims--he understands the need to treat gay couples equally. ("I don't understand how extending marriage to same-gender couples undermines traditional marriage or weakens community," Shields said in a statement. "On the contrary, I believe personal commitments strengthen community.") When the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, began offering same-sex marriage licenses, he said--like Sims--that sometimes being a leader means doing what's right even if it's unpopular. ("I did it because I thought it was right," Newsom told the New York Times. "There are certain principles in life that transcend patience, and one of them to me is the obligation not to discriminate against people.")

So what's stopping Sims? His spokesperson, Kraft, says it's not the governor's race, which Sims entered last summer. She says it's also not that Sims is an ordained minister in the Baptist church, which opposes gay marriage--Sims' personal views, she says, are different than that of his church. "He has to uphold the law," Kraft says.

Even an unjust one? Even as other elected officials defy and challenge and seek to overturn their own bigoted anti-gay-marriage laws?

* * *

Here's the response of San Francisco mayor Newsom when confronted, on CNN, with this same argument--that a state law against same-sex marriage (in this case, California's) means local officials should stay out of the gay-marriage fight. Newsom's antagonist on CNN was Republican Colorado representative Marilyn Musgrave, who recently introduced a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Musgrave: "Mr. Mayor, you're defying the law."

Newsom: "I'm hardly defying the law."

Musgrave: "You're making a mockery of the law."

Newsom: "I think you're making a mockery of this country and our values of diversity, and bringing people together and uniting people."

Newsom contends he is following the equal protection clause of his state's constitution, and Sims could make the same argument here--we drew him a map for how and when to do this last week ["Pansy-Assed Politicians," Feb 26]. So it's not that Sims' hands are tied by state law, as his spokesperson claims. It's that Sims has so far chosen not to challenge a state law that he believes is unjust and discriminatory. Either way, if Sims wants to retain any shred of credibility as a supporter of gay rights and an opponent of discrimination, he needs to stop waffling and act.

To encourage him, local gay-rights advocates could take a cue from their New York City counterparts, who this week plan on heading en masse to the city clerk's office to demand marriage licenses. There are certainly enough gay couples in this area to create a compelling scene at our county clerk's office.

But even without such demonstrations, Sims should already realize that he can do something concrete about the continued second-class status of the nearly 8,000 cohabitating same-sex couples counted in King County. In the wake of Mayor Newsom's stand in San Francisco, pleading helplessness in the face of state law is no longer an acceptable excuse. As other public officials around the country have already noticed, this is a defining moment in the gay civil rights struggle and doing nothing means not only supporting an odious status quo but also emboldening opponents of gay rights. There are times when unjust laws have to be challenged by the very officials charged with executing them. Some will argue that this is a recipe for civil anarchy. It is the opposite--a way of moving an important and contentious issue toward a swift resolution in the courts.

This week, the mayor of Ithaca, New York, Carolyn Peterson, became one of the most recent public officials to realize this. Though New York state law has been interpreted to bar same-sex marriage, Peterson began accepting applications for same-sex marriage licenses and sending them off to the state for approval, setting up the possibility of a court battle if those licenses are denied--a court battle she said her city would join on the side of gay and lesbian couples.

Sims is in a perfect position to do the same type of thing. As county executive he has the power to force the constitutional question--does Washington have a right to discriminate against gay couples? As a minister for a denomination opposed to gay marriage, he could play an even more profound role in the national debate over gay marriage. Religious conservatives maintain that civil marriage and religious marriage are the same. By handing out civil marriage licenses to same-sex couples while at the same time refraining from marrying these couples in a religious ceremony, Rev. Sims could drive home the point that full civil equality for gays and lesbians--including gay marriage--poses no threat to religious organizations. No church will be required to perform gay marriages.

Ron Sims has loudly stated his support for equality for gays and lesbians in the past. He cannot duck this issue now. He has said that he believes in civil rights and opposes discrimination, and that these beliefs apply to homosexuals as well. Let's see the proof, Ron.

Let Ron Sims know you support gay marriage. Via the pro-gay-marriage blog www.idealog.us/marriage you can send the county executive a letter urging him to act. Or write Sims directly at exec.sims@ metrokc.gov. Or call Sims at 206-296-4040.

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