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Have you ever signed on a petition on your way in or out of the grocery store? You might want to think twice after reading this article!
Thousands of Washington State voters were alarmed in May 2009 when their governor signed legislation dubbed “everything but marriage,” granting expanded benefits to state-registered domestic partners. Many rushed to sign Referendum 71: “Preserve Marriage, Protect Children.” If they could gather enough signatures quickly, the new law would appear on the November ballot and perhaps be overturned.
Signing a petition should be a simple private act similar to voting--right? Wrong! Under Washington law, all of the petition sheets--including signatures later determined to be invalid--are public records. Activists groups, such as KnowThyNeighbor.org and WhoSigned.org, seized the opportunity to demand copies so they could post the names and home addresses of petition signers on the worldwide web. Postings were intended to generate “uncomfortable” conversations--and perhaps intimidation. Swift action by the U. S. Supreme Court halted the unwelcome publicity. The Court granted review and expedited the process for writing briefs and setting oral argument.
America is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The First Amendment protects fundamental rights to speak, associate, and petition elected representatives. The people of Washington exercised all of these rights when they associated to express themselves to their state government through the petition process. The widespread disclosure of their names and residential addresses chills the exercise of these rights, discouraging many who might want to sign petitions but fear retaliation--or who simply want to protect their privacy. Washington’s “public disclosure” law was intended to promote transparency in government--not subject private citizens to unwarranted invasions of privacy. There is no compelling or even logical reason for this draconian burden on political speech.
The day before oral argument (April 2010), the attorney representing the petitioners held a “moot court” around the corner from the Supreme Court. One of the “justices” was Deborah Dewart, author of Death of a Christian Nation, a new book written to help Christians understand today’s legal climate and respond biblically to the many controversies surrounding religion in the public square, family values, and the sanctity of human life. There is an ominous trend toward approval of relationships and family structures that deviate from God’s plan and longstanding American traditions. Worse yet, those who buck the trend are increasingly subjected to legal penalties that threaten their religious liberty. Believers need to be equipped to meet the challenges with confidence--and ready to graciously give an answer when asked to give a reason for the hope they have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).