Win for gay marriage in Washington state

2012-02-09 10:00
Olympia - A bill to legalise gay marriage in Washington state won final legislative approval on Wednesday in a vote that moved the state one step closer to becoming the seventh to recognise 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 measure cleared the state House of Representatives 55-43, a week after it was passed by the state Senate by a 28-21 vote. Democrats, accounting for the lion's share of support for the bill, control both legislative bodies in the state capital Olympia but enjoy a bigger majority in the 98-seat House.

Two Republicans joined 53 Democrats in voting for the bill, while two Democrats sided with 41 Republicans in opposition.

Several prominent Washington-based companies employing tens of thousands of workers in the state also endorsed the bill, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks.

Similar statutes


Six other states already recognise same-sex 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, Washington 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.

Supporters are pushing similar statutes in Maryland and New Jersey, and a referendum to legalise gay marriage in Maine has qualified for the November ballot there.

Wednesday's 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."

Marriage about love

Representative Jay Rodne, a Republican who said he was guided by his Roman Catholic faith to oppose gay marriage, said the measure was tantamount to "progressive re-engineering in its most extreme and damaging form.

"This bill is about validation. This bill is about acceptance ... . Marriage is not about self-actualisation, validation or acceptance," he said. "Marriage is about life."

But his Republican colleague, Glenn Anderson, spoke in favour of the bill, referring to his gay brother and drawing a parallel between Jim Crow racial segregation laws in Alabama, where he grew up, and contemporary laws barring same-sex marriage.

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 Gregoire's desk by the end of the week. She will then have five days to sign it, not including Sunday. That timetable has led to speculation of enactment coming next Tuesday, Valentine's Day.

Repeal referendum

But the law would not take effect before June 7, three months after the conclusion of the legislative session.

Opponents of same-sex marriage 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 election and certification of returns, meaning December 6, before it is either repealed or goes into effect.

But should gay marriage opponents pursue an initiative, gay marriages could take place on June 7, regardless of ballot-qualification efforts.

It was unclear whether gay weddings performed in the interim would be nullified if an initiative restricting marriage to male-female unions only were to pass in November.

There is precedent in California for handling such a situation. California's Supreme Court legalised gay marriage in 2008, only for voters to approve a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex matrimony six months later.

Paving the way

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 US 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 there overturn a gay marriage statute.

Read more on:    us  |  gay rights

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