The meeting on Friday night, held in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, was billed as one of 13 activist training nights this month aimed at preventing 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 stop them. So I went.
My presence, at first, seemed fine.
Wearing a red knit blazer with a fat American flag broach, gun-rights activist Elizabeth Scott flew into the room at Bellevue City Hall 25 minutes late with an accordion-style manila case stuffed with talking points and the names of senators to target. But before we would cover a strategy for mobilizing Christian congregations to lobby Olympia (I'll get to that part down below), 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.
For nearly an hour, Scott riddled us with a central theme using as many factually blemished examples as she could recollect: Legalizing same-sex marriage would not simply entitle gay people to special rights, but rather gay marriage laws would expose Christians to an onslaught of lawsuits, boycotts, and arrests. “The government becomes an advocacy organization” for a gay lifestyle and will impose harsh penalties on dissenters, she warned.
It wasn’t far off from the group’s sentiment. As we sat around a massive triangular table used by the Bellueve City Council, one man from Antioch Bible Church said he feared “the American Dream, the white picket fence, and the 2.5 kids will become illegal.” A woman with banana-colored hair was worried for children raised by two parents of the same gender: “Kids living in that environment, it must be horrible,” she said. “It’s not normal. We have to stop it.” And 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).
Facts weren’t the important thing here—it was the specter that anyone practicing Christian values would be punished. We were told that county clerks who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in New York were being fired, 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,” but, while The Stranger broke the story, I can’t find any record of a lawsuit.
Even Scott’s claim that she had a "death threat because Referendum 71," an effort she supported to repeal domestic-partnership rights, didn't hold water.
“I ran against a gay opponent and I received death threats,” Scott said about her run for state representative last year in the 21st legislative district again Marko Liias. She explain that after she stumped to repeal domestic partnerships, one person allegedly phoned her 13-year-old child to threaten the family’s lives, and someone else allegedly made a threat related to an online video. But Scott acknowledged that “nothing happened” and “we can’t prove” that alleged threats were related to politics. (Her complaint was part of the famous Supreme Court Doe v. Reed case, which failed to prove threats.)
As a quick aside, replacing the word "gay" in Scott's examples of supposedly persecuted photographers, printers, and churches with the words "African American" and "lunch counter" showcase the extent to which we're talking about basic forms of discrimination. Of course you can't pick and choose customers based on bigotry.
Now that were fully educated on the ostensible gravity of the situation, we moved on to the “strategy” session. It was at this point that Scott scanned the room, reviewed the sign-in sheet (that I didn't sign), clarified who went to church, and sought to weed-out any secular onlookers.
“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 explained that I was just there to observe and I planned to stay. “If it feels like I’m twisting your arm, it’s best to call it a day and go home,” she pressed.
Briefly, the conversation veered to the subject of targeting senators—as I remained mostly silent next to intrepid news intern Marley Zeno—but then Scott locked my eyes.
“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 said. “This is a public meeting in a public building—Bellevue City Hall—so I believe it’s my right to remain.” Indeed, the meeting was also posted online by the Washington Family Policy Institute (the Focus on the Family state affiliate), and we were in a public building where all the doors were open. Scott threatened to call security three times. I didn’t want to disrupt, I said, so they could continue, or she could call the guards. But if I was to report on the event accurately, I needed to see the entire meeting. She called security on her cell phone and walked out of the room for several minutes.
“Okay, you can stay,” said Scott, walking back into the room and slapping down her phone. Whoever she spoke to seemed content with the presence of nonbelievers. I told her not to worry—I was raised a nice Catholic boy. “Whatever,” she spat.
I’ll get to the strategy portion in a second, but the incident made something seem clear: The bar for participating in their movement is apparently 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). This reveals an implicit admission on their part: This is strictly a holy war. They present no logical, policy-based, nor scientific rationale to oppose same-sex marriage. Only through a pastor’s interpretation of scripture can you justify this crusade. Also, these people just howled for an hour about being discriminated against, silenced, or otherwise bullied for their own political beliefs. Yet Scott was trying to do the same thing to anyone else in the room who didn't devotedly embrace their agenda.
It turns out, Marley and I weren't the only watchdogs present.
Karen Gold and two members with PFLAG were embedded among us, I found out when Gold emailed me this afternoon. She and a man left before the strategy session. "As a Bellevue resident, I was horrified that the city allowed this group to use public space for their meeting," Gold said. Reached by phone, she added, "They are totally using scare tactics. They were factually incorrect on most things that they said."
But they do have a political strategy, and here is how it works: Stop the measure in the state senate. They will target 13 senators, including members from both sides of the aisle, who they believe are on the fence by sending a constituent from his or her district to lobby every single day of the session. The senators are: Cheryl Pflug (R-5), Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10), Curtis King (R-14), Brian Hatfield (D-19), Paull Shinn (D-21), Jim Kastama (D-25), Derek Kilmer (D-26), Tracey Eide (D-30), Steve Litzow (R-41), Steve Hobbs (D-44), Andy Hill (R-45), Joe Fain (R-47), and Rodney Tom (D-48).
“The goal is not to change minds,” Scott told us, “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.”
The group then spent 30 minutes reviewing a list of churches in the 45th Legislative District and identifying people to contact members of their congregation. The intend to persuade members of the flock to approach their pastor with an appeal to "encourage their congregants to take action" on a "biblical issue," according to an instruction sheet. The sheet stresses that "this is totally legal" because they are not asking pastors to join a rally or a political action committee.
Meanwhile, the marriage equality movement is one step ahead. Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of 60 groups, already held more than a dozen meetings in the same districts last month to pass a marriage bill this winter.
"Gay activists are already doing it, so it’s time to step up our game," Scott concluded. Despite her gusto, some seem resigned to a potential loss. A man named Phil admitted, "It’s possible that this is a losing battle, but we fight because it’s the right thing to do."
UPDATE at 1:00 p.m. on December 11: Scott sent me an email this morning declaring that she didn't call security, even though she said three times that she would call security and, when she picked up the phone to make a call, said she was calling security. Scott writes, "when I came back into the room, 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. I did not call security, and did not at any point claim that I had called security." I'll print her request, sure. There's no way of knowing who she called. But she never said she was calling Backholm—just security. Just to check, I talked to Marley Zeno, who was sitting with me a few feet from Scott before she made the call and after she returned. Scott both threatened to call security and then said that's what she was doing.