As citizens in Maine and Washington state near votes on measures to protect traditional marriage, a subtheme of the debate on this issue is being raised anew: the harassment and intimidation of advocates of traditional marriage by their opponents on the issue. On Wednesday of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 to preserve a stay on Washington state’s planned publishing of the names of citizens who signed the petition that put marriage-equivalent benefits for same-sex couples on the November 3 ballot. Washington’s law SB 5688 is controversial because it creates a functional equivalent of marriage in a state that overwhelmingly approved a Defense of Marriage law in 1998.

Threats and acts of intimidation, property destruction and other forms of violence against proponents of traditional marriage reached their peak last year in the aftermath of California voters’ decision to amend their state constitution to protect marriage. As a just-released paper by Heritage Foundation Visiting Fellow Tom Messner documents, the incidents were widespread and serious, including loss of employment and even physical violence. Many of those incidents involved confrontations aimed by same-sex marriage activists at obvious targets – Catholic, Mormon and evangelical churches actively supporting the constitutional amendment – and citizens who had placed pro-Prop-8 signage on their property. Other incidents were more indirect, involving threats and reprisals against employers and employees as a result of the publication of citizens’ names and addresses on easily accessed web sites.

This in turn has been facilitated by state campaign reporting laws that require collection and publication of information about even petition signers for referendum campaigns. In Washington, two groups that advocate same-sex marriage, and, plan to create searchable internet databases that would show the petition signers’ names and addresses. The groups say they want the information released so that other Washington residents could talk to their neighbors about their views and attempt to persuade them. Leaders of the pro-traditional marriage campaigns in both Washington and Maine say that they have already been subject to threats and harassment as a result of their public involvement in the debates.

Meanwhile, advocates of greater ballot secrecy measures are taking active steps to protect the names of campaign donors. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and American Principles in Action (APIA), which support Proposition 1 in Maine, have filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin Maine’s requirement that donors, including individuals, register in the state as “ballot question committees” if they spend more than $5,000 in relation to a ballot issue. The suit argues that the requirement is unconstitutional under a previous federal court ruling that found Maine’s political action committee law could only be applied to entities whose major purpose was ballot measure advocacy.

A history of and potential for personal retaliation against ballot voters who take part in controversial policy questions argues strongly for the broadest protection of their right to privacy in this context. The peaceful resolution of disputes on heated questions of public policy is a civic value of the highest order.