OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington state Senate has passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, bringing the state a step closer to becoming the seventh to allow lesbian and gay couples to wed. But the threat of a ballot challenge looms.
The packed public galleries burst into applause as the Senate passed the measure on a 28-21 vote Wednesday night after nearly an hour and a half of debate. Four Republicans crossed party lines and voted with majority Democrats for the measure. Three Democrats voted against it.
The measure now heads to the House, which is expected to approve it and could take action on it as early as next week. Gov. Chris Gregoire supports the measure and has said she will sign it into law, though opponents have promised to challenge it at the ballot with a referendum.
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, the bill's sponsor, said he knew same-sex marriage "is as contentious as any issue that this body has considered in its history."
Lawmakers who vote against gay marriage "are not, nor should they be accused of bigotry," he said.
"Those of us who support this legislation are not, and we should not be accused of, undermining family life or religious freedom," said Murray, a gay lawmaker from Seattle who has spearheaded past gay rights and domestic partnership laws in the state. "Marriage is how society says you are a family."
Murray mentioned his partner of more than 20 years — Michael Shiosaki — as he told his Senate colleagues before the vote "regardless of how you vote on this bill, an invitation will be in the mail" to their future wedding.
Nearly a dozen amendments were debated, including several that passed that strengthen legal protections for religious groups and organizations. A handful were rejected, including one that would exempt photographers, cake decorators and other business owners who object to gay marriage from the law, and another that called for a referendum clause to be added to the bill.
Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, argued that the proposed law alters the definition of marriage and "will lead to the silencing of those who believe in traditional marriage."
"It's ironic how a bill which purports to be about ending discrimination leaves the door open so far for discrimination going in the other direction," he said. "I'm extremely concerned that without additional protections, this legislation will create a hostile environment for those of us who believe in traditional marriage."
Even though the referendum clause amendment was rejected, opponents have already promised to file a challenge to the legislation. But that can't be done until after it is passed by the full Legislature and signed into law by Gregoire. Opponents then must turn in 120,577 signatures by June 6.
If opponents aren't able to collect enough signatures, gay and lesbian couples would be able to be wed starting in June. Otherwise, they would have to wait until the results of a November election.
Before last week, it wasn't certain the Senate would have the support to pass the measure, as a handful of Democrats remained undecided.
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, and Maine could see a gay marriage proposal on the November ballot.
Proposed amendments for constitutional bans on gay marriage will be on the ballots in North Carolina on May 8 and in Minnesota on Nov. 6.
Under the measure that passed Wednesday, the more than 9,300 couples currently registered in domestic partnerships would have two years to either dissolve their relationship or get married. Domestic partnerships that aren't ended prior to June 30, 2014, would automatically become marriages.
Domestic partnerships would remain for senior couples where at least one partner is 62 years old or older. That provision was included to help seniors who don't remarry out of fear they could lose certain pension or Social Security benefits.
Alex Guenser, a 26-year-old engineer, drove down to Olympia from his Redmond home with his boyfriend to watch the Senate debate.
"I'm really excited to have Washington pass this," he said. "I'm excited for my state."
The gay marriage bill is Senate Bill 6239.
Follow Rachel La Corte at http://www.twitter.com/RachelAPOly