OLYMPIA, Wash. - Celebration erupted in the Washington State Senate Jan. 29 as Senators approved by a vote of 28 to 21 a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Four Republicans joined 24 Democrats in voting yes.
Passage of the bill in the House is considered certain and Gov. Chris Gregoire has promised to sign it. Final approval will make Washington State the 7th state in the nation to legalize gay marriages, conferring all the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual marriage.
"A lot of people are just stunned, particularly people my own age and older, to think this day would actually come in our lifetime," said Sen. Ed Murray, the author of the historic bill. Murray, himself gay, was in the Senate chamber with his longtime partner, Michael Shiosaki. They have known each other for 21 years. At a celebratory press conference they announced that they plan to marry if the bill becomes law.
Josh Friedes, Executive Director of Marriage Equality, a statewide organization, part of Equal Rights Washington hailed the vote. "Equal Rights Washington worked to engage tens of thousands of people in telling their stories to legislators of why marriage matters," he told the World in a phone interview from his Seattle office. "We have always found that people's personal stories are transformative. This was very much a bipartisan vote and we had support from all sectors of Washington, from labor unions to big business, from the faith community to organizations representing people of color."
Before they celebrate, he added, "first the bill has to pass the House and be signed by the Governor. We expect to be successful. A majority of the House sponsored the bill and the Governor is a strong supporter."
The equal marriage rights movement is anticipating an effort by opponents to place a referendum on the ballot repealing the legislation in the November 6 election. They have 90 days to gather the 120,577 signatures to qualify. Friedes said the equal marriage rights movement is already preparing to fight to defend the law at the ballot box.
Like similar equal marriage laws approved in Connecticut and New Hampshire, the equal marriage law here would take the place of a civil union or domestic partnership law approved in Washington State in 2007. The Sec. of State will send notices to each partner currently registered as domestic partners informing them that they have up to a year to get married.
If they fail to meet that deadline, the state will automatically convert their partnership to marriage. Domestic partners who are 62 or older are exempted on grounds that some couples may face loss of benefits if legally married.
"We thought it was important to end domestic partnerships at some point so we don't end up with two different statuses," Sen. Murray said. One fear is that if domestic partnership is preserved, enemies could argue that gay couples enjoy an option that heterosexual couples are denied, Murray explained.