The meeting at Bellevue City Hall on December 9 was billed as one of 13 activist-training nights this month aimed at stopping Washington from becoming the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Promoted by virulently anti-gay Focus on the Family, the agenda promised to cover the difficult-to-articulate "potential impact" of same-sex marriage, how state lawmakers intend to push a marriage bill come January, and a strategy to block them.
At first, my presence went unnoticed.
Then gun-rights activist Elizabeth Scott, wearing a red blazer and a fat American-flag brooch, flew into the room 25 minutes late with an accordion-style manila case stuffed with pages of talking points. But before covering a strategy for mobilizing Christian congregations to lobby Olympia, Scott impressed upon the 14 of us who'd been waiting just how dire the stakes are.
"I received death threats for my stand for 'one man, one woman' marriage," Scott explained.
Scott said that legalizing same-sex marriage would not simply entitle gay people to special rights, but would also expose Christians to an onslaught of lawsuits, boycotts, and even death threats. "The government becomes an advocacy organization" for a gay lifestyle and will impose harsh penalties on dissenters, she warned.
That wasn't far off from the group's sentiment. As we sat around a massive triangular table used by the Bellevue City Council, one man from Antioch Bible Church said he feared that "the American dream, the white picket fence, and the 2.5 kids will become illegal." A woman with banana-colored hair was concerned about children raised by same-sex parents: "Kids living in that environment, it must be horrible," she said. "It's not normal. We have to stop it." The group's members nodded as we went around the circle explaining why we were there. It was my turn. I said I'd come to the meeting because there were no meetings in Seattle. Next, an elderly veteran lamented that "don't ask, don't tell" was the policy when he served in the US military during the Korean War.
In fact, Congress didn't approve DADT for another 40 years.
Scott cited as many factually strained examples as she could recollect to raise the specter of Christians being punished. County clerks who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in New York were being fired, she said, even though the highest-profile cases involve two clerks who quit on their own and one clerk who retained her job. We were told of a printer in Tacoma being sued for refusing to print a flyer for a "gay wild party"—The Stranger broke the story about a promotional flyer for a bar, and no lawsuit was ever filed. Scott even claimed that gay lawmakers said that "they didn't want marriage," even though state senator Ed Murray (D-43) announced to the Seattle Times in 2007 that "the goal is marriage equality."
And her death threat? Scott acknowledged that "nothing happened" and "we can't prove" that alleged threats were related to her run for state representative against gay incumbent Marko Liias last year in the 21st legislative district.
We moved on to the "strategy" session. At this point, Scott scanned the room, reviewed the sign-in sheet (that I didn't sign), and sought to weed out any secular interlopers.
"If you are not sure that you are willing to be a point person in a church, I would ask that you leave," Scott announced, staring at me. I was just there to observe, I said. "If it feels like I'm twisting your arm, it's best to call it a day and go home," she pressed.
The conversation briefly veered to the subject of targeting senators—while intrepid Stranger news intern Marley Zeno and I remained silent—but then Scott locked eyes with me.
"I am concerned about you," she said. "I don't believe that you are here to defend traditional marriage, so I am asking you to leave."
"I intend to stay because I'm a reporter," I replied. "This is a public meeting in a public building—Bellevue City Hall—so I believe it's my right to remain." The Washington Family Policy Institute (the Focus on the Family state affiliate) even posted the "community meeting" online for all to see. Scott threatened to call security three times. I didn't want to disrupt, I said. She announced that she would call security on her cell phone and then walked out of the room for several minutes.
"Okay, you can stay," said Scott, returning and slapping down her phone. I told her not to worry—I was raised a nice Catholic boy. "Whatever," she spat.
The incident revealed something about the mind set in place: Apparently, the bar for participating in this movement is being a church member (staying in the meeting required being a "point person in a church," and registering for the event online included a required field listing your church name). The implicit admission on their part is that this is a holy war. They present no logical, policy-based, or scientific rationale to oppose same-sex marriage. Only through a pastor's interpretation of scripture can you justify this crusade.
And since the meeting was in a public facility, anyone could attend. The facilities manager of Bellevue City Hall, Ian Toms, told me later: "They did indicate that it would be a public meeting, which means that anyone can attend that meeting. And as hard as that is for them to understand, you were in the right to be there."
Perhaps that's why Scott e-mailed me at 2:51 a.m. on Sunday morning, after I'd posted an account of the meeting on Slog, insisting that she didn't call security, even though she'd said three times she would call security. "I said that I had spoken with Joseph Backholm, who was the organizer of the meeting for Family Policy Institute of Washington. I request that you print this clarification," she wrote. There's no way of knowing who she called, and neither Zeno nor I heard a peep about Backholm, but fair enough.
Three members of PFLAG were also in the room observing, it turns out. "As a Bellevue resident, I was horrified that the city allowed this group to use public space for their meeting," Karen Gold said by e-mail. "They are totally using scare tactics."
But Gold and one other PFLAG member left before the meeting tackled strategy, which went like this: Stop the measure in the state senate by targeting 13 swing-vote senators in suburban districts and sending a constituent to lobby them every single day of the session.
"The goal is not to change minds," Scott brazenly admitted, "but to say that you have thousands of constituents who will not vote for you if you vote the wrong way on this."
She circulated talking points to use when addressing these lawmakers: "If marriage is redefined: (1) Public schools will teach that there is no difference between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, (2) the idea that kids don't need a mother and a father will be reinforced, and (3) conscience rights will be lost as those who do not support same-sex 'marriage' will be at odds with state law."
Meanwhile, the marriage equality movement is one step ahead of this. Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of 60 groups, already held more than a dozen meetings in the same districts last month to support passing a marriage bill. And lawmakers are nipping some of the crazy paranoia in the bud. "We will have a provision in the bill we are drafting that emphasizes religious groups will not be forced to marry anyone they do not wish to marry," says Murray, who is sponsoring the measure in the senate. That provision does nothing more than reiterate the state constitution's robust protections for religious discretion, but "right now we don't have the votes in the senate," Murray says. "I think it is important to emphasize that we are not trying to influence how churches operate." If Murray can get the bill out of the senate, passage in the house is all but certain. If someone tries to overturn that law with a referendum, three credible polls show voters would uphold same-sex marriage.