The Supreme Court on Friday got involved for the second time this week in a case in which opponents of gay rights fear they will be harassed if their views are made public.
The high court will consider whether Washington state officials can release more than 138,500 names on a petition seeking a vote on overturning the state's domestic partnership rights.
Protect Marriage Washington, which unsuccessfully opposed the law giving gay couples expanded rights, wants to shield from disclosure the signers of the petition for a referendum on that law. The group says it fears harassment by gay rights supporters, some of whom have vowed to post signers' names on the Internet.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has said before the Nov. 3 vote that the names could be made public, but the Supreme Court blocked their release until it decided whether to hear the case.
Arguments will be heard later this year.
Justices earlier this week intervened in another case where gay rights opponents complained about potential harassment.
The court's conservative majority decided to block the televising of a trial on California's ban of same-sex marriage. The trial in federal court in San Francisco concerns Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on gay marriage in the state. Lawyers representing opponents of gay marriage argued that broadcasts would expose their trial witnesses to retaliation from gay marriage supporters.
In Washington state, Referendum 71 asked voters to approve or reject the so-called "everything but marriage" law, which grants registered domestic partners the same legal rights as married couples.
Voters ratified the law, but the conservative Christian groups that sponsored it want to keep the signed petitions that asked for the referendum out of public view because they fear harassment from gay-rights supporters, some of whom have vowed to post the names of petition signers on the Internet.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case that seeks to protect the rights of citizens who support a traditional definition of marriage to speak freely and without fear," said James Bopp, Jr., lawyer for Protect Marriage Washington. "No citizen should ever worry that they will be threatened or injured because they have exercised their right to engage in the political process."
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma blocked the release of the petitions, saying that releasing the names could chill the First Amendment rights of petition signers. The San Francisco-based appeals court reversed that ruling, but the Supreme Court blocked the name's release.
Washington state officials say the petitions are covered by their public record laws. "We welcome an opportunity to go to the highest court in the land to defend Washington citizens' strong desire for transparency, openness and accountability in government, and the public's belief that our state and local public documents must be available for public inspection," Secretary of State Sam Reed said.
But not all state officials feel that way. A GOP state representative, Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee, is sponsoring a bill that would exempt the petitions from public records.
At a public hearing on the bill Friday, fellow Republican, Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, expressed concern about releasing the names.
"I believe in open government and I believe in public records, but what I've seen unfortunately, is people who use that for purposes of vengeance, purposes of harassment," he said at the hearing before the House State Government & Tribal Affairs Committee.
Meanwhile, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle, wants a law that would essentially reaffirm that names and addresses on petitions are public record, and has introduced a bill that would add a statement on petitions letting signers know that they are public records.
Carlyle said that there was a "compelling public interest in full and open disclosure."
"We have a fundamental right to that information," he told the committee. "This is in no way about R-71 or about the left or the right. This is about the core essence of democracy."
The case is Doe v. Reed, 09-559. The bills being considered in Washington state are House Bill 2612 and House Bill 2418.
Associated Press Writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this story from Olympia, Wash.
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