by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
In what is being hailed as a historic moment, the Washington state Senate passed legislation February 1 to legalize marriage equality, bringing the state one step closer to becoming the seventh to allow LGBT couples to wed.
The measure was expected to pass, and the packed public galleries burst into applause when the vote totaled 28-21 - three more votes than originally anticipated - after nearly an hour and a half of debate.
In all, four Republicans joined the bill's supporters to secure a win. Three Democrats voted against it. The measure now heads to the House, which is expected to approve it as early as next week. Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire has said she would sign it into law.
In the days leading up to Wednesday night's historic vote, several highly visible corporations (including Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks) came out in support of marriage equality. Without a doubt, the nation was watching, and waiting, to see what the Senate would do. And now, with answer in hand, the issue marches on.
Throughout the entire ordeal, it should be noted that the personal stories told by members of the LGBT community and allied communities is what moved lawmakers. The personal touch and often heartfelt pleas for equality from constituents from all legislative districts turned the tide.
Senator Ed Murray (D-Seattle), the bill's prime sponsor, gave a passionate speech during the debate, saying, 'We ask for your support tonight not simply because marriage is a series of legal protections. 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.'
Murray, who is Gay and has fought for LGBT equality in the state for two decades, told colleagues on the floor before the vote that he looked forward to marrying his partner of more than 20 years, Michael Shiosake.
'Same-sex marriage is as contentious as any issue that this body has considered in its history,' Murray said of the bill.
In his remarks, Murray was careful to be respectful of everyone's views. Lawmakers who vote against marriage equality 'are not, nor should they be accused of bigotry,' he said.
Likewise, said Murray, 'Those of us who support this legislation are not, and we should not be accused of, undermining family or religious freedom. Marriage is how society says you are a family.'
In fact, shortly before the vote, Murray told colleagues on the floor they should all expect an invitation to his and Shiosake's wedding in the mail - regardless of which way they voted.
After the vote, Murray called the 28 votes 'a pleasant surprise,' adding, 'I'm sincerely moved by my colleagues' courage, no matter how they voted.'
Washington United for Marriage, a broad statewide coalition of organizations, congregations, unions, and business associations working to obtain civil marriage for Lesbian and Gay couples in Washington state in 2012, cheered the Senate's vote.
'We thank Majority Leader Brown, Senator Murray, and the bipartisan coalition of senators who stood with us today in the name of equality,' said Lacey All, chair of Washington United for Marriage.
'The overwhelming support we're seeing from businesses, labor, faith communities, and people all across the state is a testament to the momentum of this movement and sensibilities of Washingtonians,' added Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage.
The passage of Senate Bill 6239 was celebrated widely by many who were in attendance Wednesday night.
'I'm really excited to have Washington pass this,' said Alex Guenser, a 26-year-old engineer who drove to Olympia from Redmond with his boyfriend to watch the Senate debate. 'I'm excited for my state.'
Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Washington state is poised to be the seventh state on that list.
'It's exciting to be here and see the civil-rights movement move forward,' Kevin Moser, 31, a Seattle man who was there with his partner, Bret Tiderman, told the Seattle Times.
'It means that one day our parents will be really excited to go to a wedding,' Tiderman said.
'As small business owners who pride ourselves on contributing to our community, we are so grateful that today has arrived, and especially for the support of our senator, Mary Margaret Haugen,' said Larry Lowary and Gerry Betz, longtime residents of Washington who live on Whidbey Island. 'We've been together for 23 years and entered into our domestic partnership five years ago. Now we're looking to the day when we'll be able to look into each other's eyes, exchange our vows, and finally say 'I do' just like anybody else.'
'The action of the Senate today means so much to us, and we thank all the senators who supported this legislation,' said Tara Wolfe and A.J. Stolfus, longtime partners from Olympia. 'We moved to Washington years ago in part because of the open and welcoming nature of the people here - something we didn't always see in Kansas. We're simply overjoyed that our friends, family, and neighbors can soon recognize us as spouses and our family as being whole.'
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.
Both House and Senate versions of the bill include language to allow Gay couples from out of state to get married in Washington. In addition, they both include an amendment allowing religious organizations to refuse to rent out their chapels or other facilities as venues for same-sex weddings.
The measure now heads to the House where Representative Jamie Pedersen, an openly Gay Democrat from the 43rd District, is the bill's prime sponsor.
The bill is widely expected to pass and once it reaches the governor's desk, Gregoire says she will sign it.
The current legislative session is scheduled to end March 8.
Even though a referendum clause amendment was rejected for the bill, opponents have already promised to file a challenge to the legislation. Opponents must turn in 120,577 signatures by June 6 in order for a referendum to qualify for the ballot. If marriage equality detractors are unable to collect enough signatures, same-sex couples would be able to wed as early as June. If opponents collect the signatures needed - which they are expected to do - same-sex couples would have to wait until the results of a November election.
Opponents have been quick to point out that voters have yet to approve marriage equality in any state referendum and have, in some cases, overturned same-sex marriage laws enacted by legislators or the courts. Same-sex marriage remains outlawed in more than 40 states.
During the Senate floor debate on Wednesday, the shortage of marriage equality opponents in the audience was visible. With the bill's passage eminent, the state's Catholic bishops and other religious conservative leaders and their supporters skipped out on the event, and instead have already begun to amass thousands of Washington residents against the legislation (including voters who supported the state's expansion of domestic-partnership benefits) to draw the line on Gay marriage.
In other words, the campaigns for and against marriage equality in Washington state are underway - and the bill hasn't even been signed into law yet.
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