OLYMPIA, Wash (Reuters) - Washington state became the seventh in the nation to put a law on its books recognizing same-sex marriage on Monday, as opponents of the measure signed by Governor Christine Gregoire vowed to try to prevent it from ever taking effect.
The measure, which won final approval from state lawmakers last Wednesday, remains essentially on hold until at least early June, following a standard enactment period that runs until 90 days after Washington's legislative session ends.
Opponents launched their own campaign on Monday to seek the statute's repeal at the polls in November through a ballot measure that could delay enactment further or halt it entirely.
Still, the bill-signing marked another key victory for gay rights advocates after a federal appeals court declared a voter-approved gay marriage ban in California unconstitutional last week, and the New Jersey state Senate approved a same-sex marriage bill earlier on Monday.
Gregoire, a Democrat and a Catholic, signed Washington's measure to raucous applause during a ceremony in the ornate reception room of the Olympia statehouse, declaring, "This is a very proud moment. ... I'm proud of who and what we are as a state."
Anticipating a repeal campaign that lies ahead, she added, "I ask all Washingtonians to look into your hearts and ask yourselves -- isn't it time? ... We in this state stand proud for equality."
Several dozen protesters, including members of the group Knights of Columbus, stood silently in the Capitol Rotunda overlooking the reception hall holding signs with slogans espousing marriages of "one man, one woman."
The issue is also likely to figure in the state's Republican presidential politics. Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum, a staunch conservative and outspoken foe of same-sex marriage, was making two stops in Washington state on Monday in advance of the Republican caucuses there on March 3.
He was to meet with Republican lawmakers in Olympia in the afternoon, then give a speech in Tacoma on Monday night.
Democrats, who control both legislative bodies in Olympia, accounted for the lion's share of support for the gay-marriage bill, which gained momentum after Gregoire, who is in her last term of office, said last month she would endorse such a law.
Several prominent Washington-based companies employing tens of thousands of workers in the state have supported the bill, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks. Opponents were led by Roman Catholic bishops and other religious conservatives.
"Marriage is society's way of bringing men and women together so that children can be raised by, and cared for by, their mother and father," said Joseph Backholm, head of the Family Policy Institute of Washington.
"It is the most-important, child-focused institution of society, and we will fight to preserve it. Voters will have the opportunity to define marriage in our state."
Supporters of same-sex marriage are pushing similar statutes in Maryland and New Jersey, whose Democratic-controlled state Senate in Trenton approved a gay marriage bill earlier on Monday. Republican Governor Chris Christie has vowed to veto it if it reaches his desk.
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.
Two of Washington state's leading proponents of gay marriage, state Representative Jamie Pedersen and state Senator Ed Murray, hailed the work of Olympia's legislature.
"Years from now, our kids will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about," said Pedersen, who has four young children with his partner of 10 years. Murray, who has said he will marry his companion of nearly 20 years, added, "My friends, welcome to the other side of the rainbow."
In the meantime, opponents of same-sex matrimony have 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.
If a repeal referendum qualifies for the November ballot, the gay marriage law would be suspended until the outcome of the election is certified in December. At that point, the statute would either be repealed or go into effect.
A new coalition of gay marriage opponents, called Preserve Marriage Washington, has filed referendum papers with the Washington secretary of state's office to begin the process of presenting the issue to voters in November.
They will have until June 6 to amass at least 120,577 voter signatures to qualify a proposed repeal for the ballot. But it generally takes about three weeks for referendum petition language to be reviewed and approved by the state before signature collection can begin.
About twice as many signatures are needed by July 6 to earn a place on the ballot for an initiative defining matrimony as between one man and one woman. But unlike a referendum, qualifying an initiative would not prevent gay marriages from proceeding under the newly passed statute starting on June 7.
It remains unclear whether gay weddings performed in the interim would be nullified if an initiative were to pass in November.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston