Legislature says marriage equality for Washington

Gov. Chris Gregoire, left, is embraced by Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, after the House voted to legalize gay marriage in Washington state.

The Washington House of Representatives voted to approve the marriage equality bill 55-43 on Feb. 8, a week after the Senate passed the bill 28-21. Gov. Chris Gregoire has a five day window to sign the bill into law, but has continually voiced her support for the bill.

Opponents hope to gain signatures to push the law to a referendum, but if they fail to do so same-sex couples will be able to marry as soon as June, making Washington the seventh state to legalize gay marriage.

The approval resulted from a bipartisan vote in the Senate, with four Republicans and three Democrats crossing the traditional party lines. Republicans Hill of Redmond, Fain of Auburn, Litzow of Mercer Island, and Pflug of Maple Valley all voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage; while Shin of Edmonds, Hargrove of Hoquiam, and Sheldon of Potlatch defied the Democratic party line and voted against same sex couples to legally marry.

Karen Fraser, the Democratic senator from Olympia, as well as the senators from Tacoma and Seattle all voted in favor of the bill’s passage.

Brian Hattfield, a Democratic senator and last minute yea vote, identified the internal conflict of man versus God many politicians are faced with everyday in an illuminating statement to Reuters: “A vote in favor of marriage equality will enrage those who see it as a stone cast against God and the beliefs that I and thousands like me have been raised with. A vote against will label me as a bigot who is against extending the basic rights that I enjoy to all the residents of our state.”

Ed Murray, an openly gay Democratic senator from Seattle, and the bill’s sponsor, in an interview with the Associated Press said, “Those of us who support this legislation are not, and we should not be accused of, undermining family life or religious freedom. Marriage is how society says you are a family.”

New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. have all legally endowed people, regardless of sexual orientation, with the ability to form families.

And with the Washington state bill’s allowance for out of state residents to marry, gay and lesbian couples will no longer have to travel to the East Coast for a formal ceremony.

Weddings are set to begin as soon as June of this year, assuming Gov. Gregoire signs the bill into law by March 8, the end of the current legislative session. And although the bill experienced an easy win in the House, as is the opinion of Jamie Pedersen, the bill’s House sponsor, a referendum has already been threatened by several Republicans and religious leaders who oppose the bill.

In order for a referendum to appear on the ballot in November, thus postponing the eligible wedding date, 120,577 signatures would need to be collected by June 6. A referendum is a citizen originated measure to be voted on by the public in the general November elections. Referendums have the potential to overturn congressional decisions, and many gay marriage legislation has been stopped in this way.

Republican Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester believes such legislation “will lead to the silencing of people who believe in traditional marriage,” although the bill makes no attempt to relieve churches of their religious freedom; in fact it provides churches and religious institutions the right to refuse marriage services.
Several local churches here in Olympia have come out in support of gay and lesbian individuals and have participated in the Pride Parades. The United Churches of the Presbyterian faith have even adopted an open marriage policy allowing any couple, heterosexual or homosexual, to marry in their downtown church, aptly located on 11th Ave, kitty corner to the Capitol Building.

South Puget Sound Community College student Hannah, who declined to use their last name, said of legalizing gay marriage, “It’s about damn time. It should never have been a question in the first place. What happens in the bedroom between two people gives no one any right to place judgment…I support any two people in their courage to pursue a marriage no matter what their sexes.”

Washington state currently has “an everything but marriage” policy regarding same sex couples, instead allowing for domestic partnership. According to Huffington Post figures, there are currently approximately 9,300 registered domestic partnerships in Washington. Under the new proposed law, any domestic partnership now in place that is not ended before June 30, 2014 would become a legally recognized marriage.

In upcoming months, similar debates surrounding gay marriage legislation are set to begin in New Jersey, Maryland, and Maine. So whether you’re ready to celebrate wedding bells or start collecting signatures, we are witness to the latest battle of what has been called “the greatest civil rights issue of our generation,” played out in our backyard.

Photo courtesy AP/Elaine Thompson