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Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2012, 9:52 p.m.

Senate votes 28-21 to legalize same-sex marriage

  • Gov. Chris Gregoire (right) applauds with Rep. Jamie Pedersen (center), and Michael Shiosaka (left), partner of Rep. Ed Murray after the state Senate ...

    Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

    Gov. Chris Gregoire (right) applauds with Rep. Jamie Pedersen (center), and Michael Shiosaka (left), partner of Rep. Ed Murray after the state Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage on Wednesday.

  • People in the gallery applaud as the Senate passes a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Wednesday.

    Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

    People in the gallery applaud as the Senate passes a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Wednesday.

OLYMPIA -- Washington marched closer to crossing a historic threshold Wednesday when state senators passed a bill to make it legal for gay and lesbian couples to wed.
In front of the governor and galleries packed with gay marriage supporters, the Senate voted 28-21 to approve the controversial measure, which would make Washington the seventh state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Though the outcome was expected, the result was nonetheless unprecedented, as never before had a chamber of the Legislature debated, let alone endorsed, allowing two men or two women to obtain a license to wed.
"It's historic, it's incredible," said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill's prime sponsor, who knows a ballot battle looms if it becomes law. "No matter what happens with the referendum, nothing can take this feeling away."
The bill could become state law as soon as next week. Its next stop is the state House, where a majority is on record in support, then on to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has said she will sign it.
"This vote was courageous and was only possible with bipartisan support," Gregoire said in a statement. "Fair-minded and responsible leaders crafted a bill that protects religious freedoms while ensuring equal rights. I commend our state Senators who acknowledged tonight that separate but equal is not equal."
Twenty-four Democrats and four Republicans backed the bill, while 18 Republicans and three Democrats, including Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, voted against it.
Shin said before the vote that he labored over his decision as he found his personal feelings at odds with the teachings of his Mormon faith against gay marriage.
"I thought about this for a very long time. I finally decided this is what I've got to do," he said shortly before heading to the floor for the debate.
Snohomish County's other five Democratic senators -- Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell, Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, Maralyn Chase of Edmonds, Nick Harper of Everett and Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens -- voted for the bill. Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, voted against the bill.
Hobbs, in a floor speech, cited his service with gays and lesbians in the military as his motivation.
"How can I look them in the eye if I vote 'no' on this bill?" he said. "How can I deny a right that I enjoy to my brothers and sisters who are willing to take a bullet for me?"
Senators debated for little more than 30 minutes, with most of the time taken up by supporters who argued that the bill erases a final vestige of discrimination against gay and lesbian couples by fully recognizing their relationships.
"We ask for your support tonight because marriage is how society says you are a family," said Murray, who has pressed for the incremental expansion of gay rights for nearly two decades.
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, one of the four GOP members backing the bill, said it was not a hard decision for him.
"I believe an adult should have the freedom to marry the one they love," he said.
Opponents contended the law raises the specter of discrimination against them for voicing their view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
"I believe that altering the definition of marriage will lead to the silencing of those who believe in traditional marriage," said Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester. "It will create a hostile environment for those of us who believe in traditional marriage."
For some senators, it simply came down to their faith.
"I have to do what I feel is right and that is to vote against this bill," said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, his voice cracking with emotion.
Stevens, who did not speak during the floor debate, issued a statement afterward blasting the decision and questioning what gay and lesbian activists will push the state to do next.
"Will there be another bill next year, and another the year after that, until homosexuality is taught as normal and only an 'alternative' in Washington's public schools, or some other societal tradition is discarded in the name of 'equality?' " she said. "It is the proverbial slippery slope, one Washington has been sliding down every time we expanded rights for homosexual couples."
The seeds of Wednesday's vote were planted and sown since 1998, when the state passed its Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The final leg of the journey began with the 2006 law banning discrimination based on one's sexual orientation.
Since then, the state has established the right of same-sex couples to form domestic partnerships and register those relationships with the state. In 2009, lawmakers passed and voters upheld the "everything but marriage" law granting same-sex couples nearly all the rights and privileges enjoyed by married heterosexual couples except marriage.
The legislation passed by the Senate mirrors gay marriage laws enacted in Iowa, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and the District of Columbia.
It would redefine marriage to be a civil contract between two people, regardless of their gender, rather than only between a man and a woman. This enables couples of the same sex to marry if both persons are at least 18 years old.
The proposed bill also says several thousand same-sex couples listed in the domestic partnerships registry will have their relationships converted into marriages on June 30, 2014, unless the couple marries or dissolves their partnership before then.
And the bill seeks to make clear that the freedom of religious leaders to refuse to conduct marriages of same-sex couples is protected. It states that clergy, rabbis, imams and other religious officials, as well as churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions, cannot be sued for saying no.
Those protections aren't going to deter an effort by religious and social conservatives to repeal any gay marriage law passed by the Legislature. They've formed a coalition and intend to gather signatures for a referendum.
Gay marriage supporters are mobilizing, too. They've created Washington United for Marriage to run a campaign they expect will cost the two sides close to $10 million.
How they voted
Yes
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds
Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens
No
Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds
Sen, Val Stevens, R-Arlington
What the bill would do:
• Define marriage as between two persons, rather than between a man and a woman. This lets couples of the same sex marry if both people are at least 18 years old.
• Convert registered same-sex domestic partnerships into marriages on June 30, 2014, unless the couple marry or dissolve their partnership before then.
• Allow religious officials and churches to refuse to conduct marriages of same-sex couples without fear of being sued.
• Allow religious organizations to decline to provide accommodations, facilities, services, or goods for a wedding ceremony or celebration.
• Permit same-sex couples from other states with valid civil unions or domestic partnerships to marry here.
• Make existing law gender-neutral so couples getting married would say that "they take each other to be spouses" rather than "they take each other to be husband and wife."
To read the bill, go to: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=6239&year=2011
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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