Wash. marriage bill clears Senate

Washington State is now well-poised to become the seventh state in the nation to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Washington State bill for marriage equality cleared a crucial hurdle Wednesday night (February 1), passing the state senate on a vote of 28 to 21 after it first rejected an attempt to put the issue to a statewide referendum in November.

The bill now goes to the full House, where headcounts gives it a clear margin for victory. Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of groups working for passage of the legislation, said the vote in the House could come as early as next week.

The Senate dealt quickly Wednesday night with 11 amendments, most dealing with proposed religious exemptions. It adopted seven of the amendments but, on a 26 to 23 vote, rejected an attempt to put the issue before voters in November.

Senator Brian Hatfield (D-Olympia), who proposed the referendum, announced before the debate that he would vote for the bill. But during debate, he warned his colleagues that groups opposed to same-sex marriage are already preparing to gather signatures to force a referendum on the measure this November. Such opponents will likely have until early June to collect more than 120,000 signatures.

Senator Edward Murray, an openly gay legislator from Seattle and a 15-year veteran of the legislature, sponsored the bill. It calls for “ending discrimination in marriage based on gender and sexual orientation to ensure that all persons in this state may enjoy the freedom to marry on equal terms, while also respecting the religious freedom of clergy and religious institutions to determine for whom to perform marriage ceremonies and to determine which marriages to recognize for religious purposes.”

The religious protection language in the bill stipulates that “no official of a religious denomination or non-profit institution…may be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or by the Washington state Constitution.” It also enables religious institutions to bar use of their facilities to same-sex couples for marriage ceremonies.

Many of the amendments approved Wednesday night sought to add to the religious exemptions. One particularly ominous amendment sought to add that no state or local government can “base a decision” to do business with “any religious organization” based on the organization’s refusal to accommodate same-sex marriage ceremonies. That amendment failed.

The Senate also rejected, by 27 to 22, an attempt to enable individual judges, justices, and commissioners to refuse solemnize a same-sex ceremony by stating that their personal religious beliefs. And it rejected an amendment seeking to allow individuals and businesses, including wedding planners, photographers, and florists to provide services and accommodations for same-sex ceremonies.

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire (D), a long-time supporter of rights for same-sex couples but not always a strong supporter of equal marriage rights, announced January 4 that she would support the bill. Local news media reported that the governor was in the Senate for the debate and she issued a statement immediately after the vote.

“Tonight the Washington State Senate stood up for what is right and told all families in our state that they are equal and that the state cannot be in the business of discrimination,” said Gregoire. “I believe that this decision should be made by our state Legislature, and I’m proud our elected leaders recognized that responsibility.”

Gregoire thanked Senator Murray for his leadership on the bill.

A live feed of the debate provided by the state-run cable network malfunctioned during most of the session, apparently due to the number of people attempting to watch the debate. The network, TVW, reported that “record numbers” were watching the debate. But TVW and The Seattle Times provided timely updates through their blogs, as did the Senate website.

Senator Murray has been a key mover behind much of Washington State’s legislation to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people. He led the successful effort in 2006 to pass a statewide non-discrimination law to protect LGBT people and, in 2007, led the fight for passage of a domestic partnership law. In 2009, he sought passage of an “Everything but Marriage” bill.

According to the Seattle Times, Murray urged his colleagues to support the bill, saying that marriage “is how society says you are a family—the way the community knows a couple loves each other.

Lambda Legal National Marriage Project Director Camilla

Taylor issued a statement saying same-sex couples in Washington State are now “one step closer to enjoying the freedom to marry, thanks to the impressive efforts of Washington United for Marriage, and the bravery of supporters of equality in the State Senate.”

One Response to Wash. marriage bill clears Senate

  1. ChuckGG says:

    Well, good news all around. I understand the need to put the religious exemptions in there but from a legal standpoint they really are unnecessary. There is a distinct separation of church and state and the issues and concerns could not be clearer.

    On the failed amendment side, disallowing judges and other secular officials from opting-out of carrying out their legal duties makes sense. Also, disallowing businesses who serve the public from opting-out of serving a certain segment of the public, also makes sense. Substitute the word “African-American” or “physically challenged” instead of “gay” and such an amendment is reprehensible.

    So, all told, it seems to have followed right along legal lines which is all anyone ever asked for.

    Now, I suppose NOM will come in, work all the bible-thumpers into a lather, and force the issue to referendum, as was done in Maine. Unfortunate and a waste of time and money. It would be nice if 120,000 people would NOT sign NOM’s hate petition. Perhaps, an ad campaign for that effort would be in order.

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