By Peter J. Smith

OLYMPIA, Washington, October 19, 2009 ( – A federal appeals court has ordered the public release of tens of thousands of signatures to a petition in support of a pro-marriage referendum. The referendum would allow Washington voters to reject a law that gives homosexual couples all the rights and benefits of marriage without the name of “marriage.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California overturned an earlier decision by U.S. District Judge Ben Settle, who had blocked release of the petition signatures. Settle had ruled in his decision that First Amendment protections were at stake and that the state had failed to prove a compelling public interest that would mandate their release to the public.

The three-judge panel issued an immediate stay that vacated Settle's preliminary injunction blocking release of the names, saying Settle's legal reasoning was incorrect. A legal opinion will be released shortly to explain their reasoning.

Pro-family advocates under the banner Protect Marriage Washington successfully collected over 121,000 signatures of Washington voters to get Referendum 71 on the November ballot, and argued that recent events made it necessary to protect the identities of signers from exposure to the public eye. If approved by the electorate, R-71 would overturn SB 5688 – the law passed by the legislature in April that many see as a major step toward legal same-sex “marriage.”

However, homosexual activists and two pro-same-sex “marriage” groups, and, have pledged to use Washington's public disclosure laws to create searchable databases on the internet of the signers' names and addresses. Protect Marriage Washington sought to keep the signature private in order to prevent harassment, intimidation, and violence, such as that inflicted on petitioners in California over Proposition 8 (see coverage here  and here).

In November, the Los Angeles Times reported that El Coyote restaurant in California came under siege by hundreds of pro-homosexual “marriage” protesters, because one such website exposed the private $100 “Yes on 8” contribution of the owner's daughter, Marjorie Christoffersen. The rioting became so out of control at one point that the L.A. Police Department was forced to deploy in force with riot gear to quell the disturbance.

The Washington Attorney General's Office, however, will not yet release the names of signers to the petition to the public yet, as another preliminary injunction remains in force. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks has also issued a temporary restraining order against the state AG releasing any names, until has time to make a judgment in a separate case or hears from the 9th Circuit.