Today the office of Washington’s Attorney General released the ballot language for Referendum 74, the measure challenging the state’s new marriage equality law. This is just the first step in the process of finalizing the language. Now begins a 5-day period where anyone objecting to the language can file an appeal in Thurston County Superior Court.

Since ballot language is proposed by the person filing the referendum — in this case Joseph Backholm of Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW) in conjunction with National Organization for Marriage (NOM) — the appeal process provides an opportunity to catch prejudicial or confusing language that may have missed the notice of the AG’s office.

Looking at the ballot language for Referendum 74, one comes to appreciate this appeal process. Notice the term I’ve put in caps:

Ballot Title
The legislature passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6239 concerning marriage [and voters have filed a sufficient referendum petition on this bill.]

This bill would REDEFINE MARRIAGE to allow same-sex couples to marry, modify existing domestic-partnership laws, allow clergy to refuse to solemnize or recognize marriages and religious organizations to refuse to accommodate marriage celebrations.

Should this bill be

___ Approved

___ Rejected

Ballot Measure Summary
The bill would REDEFINE MARRIAGE to allow same-sex couples to marry, apply marriage eligibility requirements without regard to gender, and specify that laws using gender-specific terms like “husband” and “wife” include same-sex spouses. Clergy could refuse to solemnize or recognize any marriages. Religious organizations and religiously affiliated educational institutions could refuse to accommodate weddings. The measure would not affect licensing of religious organizations providing adoption, foster-care, or child-placement. Domestic partnerships for seniors would be preserved.

“Redefine marriage” does not appear anywhere in the marriage equality law that the referendum is challenging, but it is a key phrase in the opposition’s playbook. Indeed, “redefine marriage” is used frequently by NOM and FPIW in their communications about Washington’s marriage equality law. For example, “The National Organization for Marriage Pledges Referendum Campaign if Legislature Tries to Redefine Marriage” is the headline of a recent article written about the marriage debates in Washington by NOM’s Brian Brown.

“Redefine marriage” can be found anywhere the marriage equality bill or law is discussed on FPIW’s website, whether in their own writings (e.g., “What you can do about the legislature’s decision to redefine marriage“) or in the writings of the Catholic Hierarchy featured prominently on FPIW’s main web page (e.g., “A statement by Washington’s bishops on defining marriage“).

A Google search on the term “redefine marriage” results in links to anti-gay conservative religious publications and organizations like Boston Pilot, Alliance Defense Fund and CitizenLink.

Problematic ballot language will not go unchallenged by Washington United for Marriage, the campaign working to protect the new marriage equality law. “We will fight to make the language fair, balanced and accurate,” Washington United for Marriage’s campaign manager Zach Silk said in an e-mail. “This is the first of many steps in crafting the referendum language. We have ample evidence that this phrase is literally out of the opposition’s playbook.”

Earlier this week, Washington United for Marriage challenged ballot language for Initiative 1192, a ballot measure that seeks to re-instate the state’s DOMA law that the marriage equality bill repealed. “Our goal was to make sure the ballot title was as clear and understandable as possible,” said Anne Levinson to The Olympian. “For us the most important thing is it explicitly says that if you approve this [I-1192] it will prohibit marriage for same-sex couples.” Washington United for Marriage’s legal team was satisfied that the I-1192 ballot language approved by Thurston County Judge Thomas McPhee met that goal.