By Andrew Garber, The Seattle Times –
OLYMPIA, Wash. — A bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington cleared its biggest legislative hurdle late Wednesday in a historic vote by the state Senate.
After about 90 minutes of debate, lawmakers approved the legislation 28-21.
Loud applause erupted from the galleries packed by gay-marriage supporters in the normally staid Senate, and lawmakers backing the measure hugged each other in the aisles.
The measure now heads for the House, where it’s expected to pass easily as early as next week. The governor strongly supports the bill as well.
Washington would become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage.
The outcome, while expected, culminates more than a decade of work by Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of the bill, and the gay and lesbian community.
“A lot of people are just stunned, particularly people my age and older, to think this day would actually come in our lifetime,” Murray said shortly before the vote.
In addition to the 26 lawmakers who previously had announced their support, two more Republicans, Sens. Andy Hill of Redmond and Joe Fain of Auburn, voted for it as well. Overall, 24 Democrats and four Republicans voted for the measure.
Even so, there was plenty of debate in the Senate with supporters arguing same-sex marriage was a matter of equal rights, and opponents countering that the law would impinge on religious freedom.
“We ask for your support tonight not simply because marriage is a series of legal protections,” Murray said on the floor. “We ask for your support tonight because marriage is how society says you are a family. Marriage is the way a community knows that a couple loves each other.”
Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, a longtime opponent of gay-marriage legislation, said he’s worried about the impact the law could have on people who oppose same-sex marriage because of their religious beliefs.
“I’m extremely concerned that without additional protections this legislation will create a hostile environment for those of us who believe in traditional marriage,” he said.
The bill approved by the Senate contains a provision that says churches do not have to marry gay couples unless they want to. Swecker has argued that anyone with religious objections to same-sex marriage — such as photographers, wedding planners, florists — should have the right to decline services to gay couples without facing a discrimination complaint.
Supporters of the bill also had to fend off a push to let the voters decide. An amendment to put the measure on the November ballot, sponsored by Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, was defeated by a 26-23 vote.
Hatfield, who ended up voting for the bill anyway, said a decision this big should be decided by voters.
“What’s the problem? Let’s trust the people of this state … and let the voters have their say,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, argued the measure is a civil-rights bill and that putting it on the ballot would subject the rights of minorities “to the whims of the majority.”
Gay-marriage opponents have promised to challenge any same-sex marriage law at the ballot. A referendum cannot be filed until the governor signs the legislation.
Under state law, opponents have 90 days from the end of the session to collect 120,577 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. The regular session ends March 8.
Compared to past votes dealing with gay-rights legislation, little sign of nervousness was apparent in the hours leading up to the Senate floor action.
The galleries filled with gay-marriage supporters long before lawmakers arrived and applauded when Murray showed up with his longtime partner, Michael Shiosaki.
Murray and Shiosaki actually held a celebratory news conference before the vote.
When the two men first met 21 years ago, “we never would have imagined that this day would be here,” Murray said. The two men said they plan to marry if the bill becomes law.
Things weren’t so certain last month. Many senators were sitting on the fence, and gay-marriage supporters worried they would not have enough votes.
The state Senate always has been the biggest hurdle for same-sex marriage supporters.
Its mix of conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats has proved uncertain territory for any measure dealing with the rights of gays and lesbians.
In 2005, a gay-rights bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate. The landmark legislation won only narrow approval a year later after a Republican senator switched sides.
Murray represented the 43rd District in the state House then. At the time, he said the legislation “is one of those rare things that probably only happens once in your life.”
Yet, he was back the following year, along with Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, in the House, to push through a series of additional bills dealing with gay rights. That work culminated with the “everything but marriage” law that voters upheld through Referendum 71 in 2009.
In the end, all that was left was the word “marriage.”
It was an intentional, incremental approach to pave the way, and build support for legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.
It appears to have worked.
Not only do the bills seem to have broader legislative support than key gay-rights legislation that preceded it, but corporations are tripping over themselves to announce their backing. A number of prominent Pacific Northwest companies, including Microsoft, Starbucks, Nike, Vulcan and Amazon have endorsed the measure.
Senate Bill 6239 defines marriage as between two persons, rather than between a male and a female.
It also would allow couples from other states with valid civil unions or domestic partnerships — but not marriages — to marry here.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.