A legal battle is under way over whether the proposed ballot measure to overturn gay marriage in Washington state is correct in saying the new law "redefines" marriage.

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Does the same-sex marriage bill passed by the Legislature last month “redefine” the term marriage in Washington state?

Gay-marriage supporters say no — that the new legislation does nothing to change the meaning of marriage. To them, “redefine” is a loaded word.

Their opponents, on the other hand, say yes — that redefining marriage is the very linchpin of the legislation.

And on that point, at least, the state Attorney General’s Office sides with them.

The Solicitor General’s Office of the Attorney General’s Office is responsible for ensuring that language on all state ballot measures is clear, concise and tries to be neutral. In crafting language for a referendum on the recently passed legislation, the state lawyers say that the measure indeed “alters the current meaning of the term marriage.”

Use of the word “redefine” is key in the predictable fight over ballot language for Referendum 74, which, if enough valid signatures are gathered, would put the new law to a public vote in November.

Thurston Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee will decide on the language at a hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday. His decision is final.

Some legal experts predict McPhee will sidestep the tricky question, sticking instead to more neutral language. State law requires that ballot language should “not — to the extent reasonably possible — create prejudice either for or against the measure.”

“The judge has to be concerned the referendum can be overturned if voters reject the law and inevitably there’s a lawsuit that claims the language was biased… ,” said Stewart Jay, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Washington.

“There’s far more neutral language that can be used,” Jay said. “It seems like a political argument that should be avoided.”

Under state law, a referendum must concisely describe the legislation being put to a vote and the changes that the legislation would bring.

Those for and against same-sex marriage filed briefs challenging language that the Solicitor General’s Office has crafted for the referendum. In every section they have raised objections — from inclusion of language on religious exemptions to exactly how to convey that the legislation would neutralize gender-specific terms in the state’s marriage laws.

But by far their most vigorous arguments center on whether the legislation redefines marriage.

In cases across the country, same-sex marriage supporters never use the term to describe the marriage equality they seek, noted Seattle University law professor Julie Shapiro. And the term was not used on a 2009 ballot measure in Maine when voters rejected same-sex marriage legislation.

The League of Women Voters and PFLAG, a support group for friends and families of gays, called the word “redefine” a “well-established, poll-tested sound bite” used for years by gay-marriage opponents.

The legislation would not change the meaning of marriage or alter the rights of married couples, they say.

“Marriage is not redefined by this law any more than voting was redefined by laws granting African Americans and women the right to vote,” they say.

Preserve Marriage Washington, sponsors of the referendum, cites various legal and dictionary definitions of marriage, as well as current state law describing marriage as between a man and a woman.

The newly passed bill alters that, they argue, thus redefining marriage. To state that the law “redefines marriage is not masterful political messaging, but simply the truth,” they argue.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.