Elaine Thompson, Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. — The last time same-sex marriage was debated in the Washington state Legislature, lawmakers voted to ban it. Fourteen years later, the issue is before the Legislature once again after a multiyear effort that has incrementally increased rights to gay and lesbian couples in the state.
And this time around, it looks like Washington could very well become the seventh state plus the District of Columbia to legalize same-sex marriage.
Gay marriage has won the backing of several prominent Pacific Northwest businesses, including Microsoft Corp. and NIKE, Inc., and just this week a conservative Democrat who once opposed same-sex marriage said he will now vote for it.
Bills to legalize same-sex marriage have been introduced in the House and Senate, sponsored by two gay lawmakers who have pushed for gay rights measures in past years. The bills will have their first public hearings on Monday, before a Senate committee in the morning and a House committee in the afternoon. While gay marriage bills have been introduced in Washington state before, this is the first time the issue will receive a public hearing.
"If there's one word to sum up where Washington is on marriage equality, it's momentum," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Lawmakers in New Jersey and Maryland are expected to debate gay marriage this year as well.
Washington state along with several other states, including California, Oregon and New Jersey, have laws that either recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships that afford same-sex couples some or nearly all of the rights to marriage.
The debate over same-sex marriage in Washington state has changed significantly since lawmakers passed Washington's Defense of Marriage Act in 1998. The constitutionality of DOMA was ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2006, but earlier that year, a gay civil rights measure passed after nearly 30 years of failure, signaling a change of mindset in the Legislature.
The quick progression of domestic partnership laws in the state came soon after, with a domestic partnership law in 2007, and two years of expansion that culminated in 2009 with the so-called "everything but marriage law" that was upheld by voters after opponents filed a referendum to challenge it.
That slow-but-steady strategy was spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, a gay lawmaker from Seattle who has led the push for gay civil rights and domestic partnerships and who is sponsoring the Senate marriage bill.
Murray said that it may have taken years to lay the groundwork, but now the state is ready to address same-sex marriage.
"The culture changes and the politics follows," he said. "The most political act that changed the culture wasn't in Olympia, it wasn't me. It was people coming out to their families, to their workplace. That's what's changed people's minds."
Momentum continued to build last week, when Microsoft and several other companies, including RealNetworks Inc., NIKE Inc. and Vulcan Inc., sent Gov. Chris Gregoire a letter Thursday saying they supported the two measures. Also on Thursday, Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup announced he would support the measure in the Senate, becoming the 24th senator to commit a vote to the measure. The state House is widely expected to have enough support to pass gay marriage, and Gregoire publicly endorsed the proposal earlier this month.
The state Senate is now just one vote shy of having enough backing to approve the bill, with a half-dozen lawmakers remaining uncommitted.