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U.S. court to hear appeal by gay marriage opponents

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Friday to intervene for a second time this week in an appeal by gay marriage opponents who claim public disclosure of their names and addresses could lead to threats, harassment or intimidation.

The nation's high court agreed to hear an appeal by a group that seeks to prevent the public release of the names of more than 138,000 individuals who signed a Washington state petition in support of traditional marriage.

The group, Protect Marriage Washington, opposed a law giving gay couples expanded rights and benefits. It said its supporters would be harassed if state officials disclosed the names of those who wanted a referendum on that law.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that video from the landmark trial over California's same-sex marriage ban cannot be broadcast, handing a victory to those defending the ban.

By a 5-4 vote, the court's conservative majority agreed with attorneys who support the ban who argued their witnesses would be intimidated if the trial were broadcast.

In the Washington state case, the Court is expected to hear arguments at the end of April, with a decision likely by the end of June. At issue is whether signing a referendum is a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment and whether there is a right to sign it without public disclosure.

More than 138,000 individuals signed a petition to put a referendum on the state ballot that would have overturned a new state law extending the benefits of marriage to couples registered as domestic partners. The referendum failed.

Some supporters of gay rights had vowed to put the names of those who signed the petition on the Internet.

James Bopp, the attorney representing Protect Marriage Washington, urged the Supreme Court to put in place permanent safeguards to protect petition signers from harassment and intimidation.

"Those who support traditional marriage have seen their personal property destroyed and have been subject to death threats because of their beliefs," he said.

"The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to prevent this from recurring in future elections by preventing the government from compelling citizens to disclose their identities and beliefs to the public," Bopp said.

Washington Attorney General Robert McKenna opposed the appeal. He said the state's public records law applied to those who sign such petitions.

He said allowing public inspection of such petitions does not violate the rights of the signers who have publicly disclosed their names and addresses to referendum sponsors.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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