6 Min Read
OLYMPIA, Wash (Reuters) - A bill to legalize gay marriage in Washington state won final legislative approval on Wednesday in a largely party-line vote that moved the state to the cusp of becoming the seventh in the nation to recognize same-sex nuptials.
Washington's Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire said she looked forward to signing the measure and "putting into law an end to an era of discrimination" even as opponents, led by religious conservatives, vowed to seek its repeal at the polls in November.
The approval in the state House of Representatives came a day after gay marriage advocates won a key legal victory in California when a federal appeals court declared a voter-approved gay marriage ban in that state unconstitutional.
The Washington legislation cleared the state House of Representatives by a vote of 55-43, a week after the state Senate passed it by a 28-21 vote. Democrats, accounting for the lion's share of support for the bill, control both legislative bodies in Olympia.
Several prominent Washington-based companies employing tens of thousands of workers in the state also endorsed the bill, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks.
Supporters of same-sex marriage are pushing similar statutes in Maryland and New Jersey, and a referendum to legalize gay marriage in Maine has qualified for the November ballot there.
Six other states already recognize gay marriage -- New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa -- as does the District of Columbia.
But neither Tuesday's legal ruling in San Francisco nor the statehouse action in Olympia will immediately alter the status quo for gay couples. The outcome of the court challenge in California is likely to remain stayed until the appeals process finishes running its course, and the Washington state measure cannot go into effect before early June.
Wednesday's floor action began with lawmakers quickly rejecting a series of amendments, most of them relatively technical in nature, that would have slowed the bill's momentum by forcing it back to the Senate for further consideration.
Debate grew emotional at times, with the bill's chief House sponsor, Representative Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat who has four young children with his gay companion of 10 years, arguing that the state's domestic-partnership law falls short.
"I would like our four children to understand ... that their daddy and their papa have made that lifelong commitment to each other," he said. "Thousands of same-sex couples in our state deserve the respect and protection from our government that only marriage can convey."
Representative Jay Rodne, a Republican who said he was guided by his Roman Catholic faith to oppose gay marriage, decried the bill as tantamount to "progressive reengineering in its most extreme and damaging form."
"This bill is about validation. This bill is about acceptance ... Marriage is not about self-actualization, validation or acceptance," he said. "Marriage is about life."
In the end, two Republicans joined 53 Democrats in voting for the bill in the House, while two Democrats sided with 41 Republicans in opposition. It passed unchanged from its Senate version.
Gregoire, in a statement issued after the vote, said Washington state would "no longer deny our citizens the opportunity to marry the person they love."
"We tell every child of same-sex couples that their family is every bit as equal and important as all other families in our state," she said.
The bill is to be formally delivered to the governor's desk by week's end, and Gregoire will then have five days to sign it, not including Sunday. Aides said enactment was expected to come on or before next Tuesday, Valentine's Day. Still, the measure would not take effect before June 7, three months after the conclusion of the legislative session.
In the meantime, opponents of same-sex matrimony said they would seek to overturn the legislation via one of two ballot measures -- a referendum for repeal or an initiative defining marriage as the exclusive domain of heterosexual couples.
The initiative would need 241,153 signatures of registered voters by July 6 to secure a place on the November ballot. A repeal would need just half the number of signatures by June 6.
If a repeal referendum qualifies for the November ballot, the gay marriage law would be suspended until the election and certification of returns, meaning December 6, before it is either repealed or goes into effect.
One amendment rejected in both the Senate and House would have submitted the issue directly to voters in a referendum, bypassing the need for a petition.
Also left unchanged were provisions allowing gay couples from out of state to get married in Washington and permitting religious organizations to refuse to rent out their chapels or other facilities as venues for same-sex weddings.
Should gay marriage opponents pursue an initiative to define matrimony as being restricted to one man and one woman, gay marriages under the newly passed statute could proceed on June 7, regardless of ballot-qualification efforts.
But it was unclear whether gay weddings performed in the interim would be nullified if an initiative restricting marriage to male-female unions were to pass in November.
There is precedent in California for handling such a situation. California's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2008, only to see voters approve a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex matrimony six months later.
The state's high court later upheld the gay marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, but ruled that 18,000 same-sex weddings officiated between May and November 2008 were still legal.
A federal judge later ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional, a decision upheld on Tuesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Legal experts said that ruling, while narrowly tailored to California, could ease the way for a successful court challenge in Washington state should voters ban gay marriage at the polls.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston