Vote Moves Washington State Closer to Gay Marriage

Seattle — Washington was poised Wednesday to become the seventh state to allow same-sex couples to marry after the State House gave final passage to such a bill. Gov. Christine Gregoire promised to sign it.

The governor is expected to do just that as soon as next week, but it is not likely to take immediate effect. Under state law, if opponents gather 120,000 signatures, the measure will be put to a public referendum before it can be enacted.

The Washington vote came just a day after a court ruling in California that struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage, and it precedes several other votes expected across the country that could keep the issue in the spotlight throughout this election year. Some will take place in legislative chambers, including in Maryland and New Hampshire, and some at the ballot box, including in Minnesota, North Carolina and, very likely, a referendum here in Washington on the bill the Legislature just passed by a vote of 55 to 43.

Advocates on both sides said Wednesday that, over the long term, their side would prevail, regardless of the conflicting developments that have defined the issue for several years.

Washington embodies the conflicts. It is among more than 30 states that have passed laws defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, but it has steadily expanded rights for gay couples since 2006, the year it approved a wide-ranging gay rights bill. In 2007, it approved rights for domestic partners. In 2009 it passed a so-called everything-but-marriage bill.

Full marriage rights began speeding toward approval last month, when Ms. Gregoire announced that she would file the bill to make same-sex marriage legal.

The governor, a Democrat now in her second and final term, had said that she did not believe that the state was ready for same-sex marriage and that churches should play a decisive role on the issue. Ms. Gregoire’s bill, modeled after one approved by New York in June, allows churches and religious groups to choose not to perform same-sex marriages and to deny same-sex couples access to their facilities for weddings.

Recent debate here has been relatively measured. The Senate passed the bill easily last month, 28 to 21.

“We very deliberately undertook an incremental approach,” said Representative Jamie Pedersen, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House. “We believe we’ve benefited from taking steps only when we’re likely to be successful.”

The issue may be more contentious elsewhere. In North Carolina, voters will decide in May on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Minnesota will vote on a similar measure in November. Austin R. Nimocks, a lawyer who argues against same-sex marriage for the Alliance Defense Fund, noted that while some polls showed increasing support for gay marriage, voters had never approved it at the polls. In 31 statewide votes, voters have consistently defined marriage as between a man and a woman, he said.

“I don’t see a shift in momentum,” Mr. Nimocks said. “You can use all the polls you want. You can say anything you want to about civil unions or domestic partnerships, but when it comes to marriage, the record is clear.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage say the Washington vote, including the speed with which it has moved through the Legislature this year, is evidence of growing acceptance.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said that over time, particularly in states that sanction gay unions in some form, supporters are able to show that “no one else’s relationship is harmed but that these particular families end up more secure.”

But Mr. Cole-Schwartz and others acknowledged that the number of states likely to pass same-sex marriage bills anytime soon was small. In Maryland, the Senate has approved same-sex marriage, but it faces a tougher fight in the House, including among some moderate black Democrats. Supporters are lobbying those lawmakers and enlisting help. The Rev. Al Sharpton has released a video in which he says: “If committed gay and lesbian couples want to marry, that is their business. None of us should stand in their way.”

New Jersey lawmakers could approve a bill as early as next week, but Gov. Chris Christie has said he would veto the measure.

In New Hampshire, Republicans are leading an effort to repeal gay marriage after the Legislature approved it in 2009. In Maine, a ballot measure will give voters the chance to approve same-sex marriage. It would be the first time that happened.

Washington, which would become the only state west of Iowa to allow same-sex marriages, is also expected to see the issue on the ballot this fall. In 2009, the state voted 53 to 47 to uphold its “everything but marriage” law, a vote supporters say is the only statewide vote nationwide that upheld gay unions.

Some lawmakers here have been on both sides of the issue. In 1998, Senator Jim Kastama, a moderate Democrat, voted in favor of the bill preventing same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, he planned to vote for same-sex marriage.

“I have a very good marriage of 17, 18 years,” Mr. Kastama said. “All the strength that I get from that, how can I deny someone else that?”

Mr. Kastama said he had changed his position after a “tremendous amount of introspection,” but he also cited economics. He said he believed marriage made communities financially and socially stronger, regardless of whether they were same-sex or between a man and a woman. The state has a budget deficit of about $1.5 billion.

“We have to become far more reliant on each other, and the government is not always going to be there,” Mr. Kastama said. “I think we all do better in committed relationships.”

by William Yardley
Source – The New York Times