By Lisa Keen
In a sometimes emotional ceremony Monday morning, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the freshly passed marriage equality bill, telling a crowded gathering at the State House, that same-sex couples “will no longer be separate but equal” in Washington, but simply equal.
The ceremony took place just hours after the New Jersey Senate voted 24 to 16 to pass a marriage equality law there. The New Jersey bill now goes to the Assembly, which is expected to pass it on Thursday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has made it well-known he intends to veto the bill. The legislature is not expected to muster the 27 votes in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly to overcome that veto.
The Washington State bill also has its hurdles ahead, too. Opponents are expected to mount an effort to force the bill into a referendum, an action that, if successful, could either kill or delay implementation of the new law until December.
But during Monday’s signing ceremony, the mood was determined and upbeat. Gregoire told the audience a story of a 16-year-old lesbian who wrote to her recently saying she had considered suicide but had been given renewed hope by passage of the marriage equality bill.
She said she had been overwhelmed with response to the bill, both from young people and couples who had been together for many years.
“I am so proud of our young people, including my two wonderful daughters,” said Gregoire, her voice choking with emotion. Gregoire said her daughters, ages 27 and 32, told her “this is the civil rights issue of their time.”
The Washington State legislature was the ninth state to approve marriage equality – either through the legislature (five states), the courts (two), or both (two). Two of those states (California and Maine) had their laws reversed by voters, so Washington – if it rejects the expected repeal effort – will become the seventh state, plus the District of Columbia, to provide marriage equality. (California’s law was reversed after being in effect only six months. Enactment of Maine’s law was delayed pending the referendum vote.)
The marriage equality bill passed the Washington House Feb. 8 on a 55 to 43 vote, overturning an existing law to ban same-sex marriage. It passed the Senate 28 to 21 on February 1.
According to the Washington Secretary of State’s office, the law is due to take effect on June 7, but opponents of the law have until June 6 to turn in more than 120,000 signatures. If they do turn in signatures, the law will be suspended until either voters can weigh in on the measure in November or until the Secretary of State certifies that too few signatures passed the validation process. If the latter occurs, the law would take effect immediately (probably sometime in July).
State Rep. Jamie Pederson, sponsor of the bill in the House, thanked the governor for taking “a significant risk” to support the legislation and for being the governor to do “the most in U.S. history” to advance the cause of equal rights for LGBT people. Gregoire also signed a state law in 2006, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. She also signed a bill in 2007 establishing domestic partnerships and a bill in 2009 giving same-sex couples “everything but marriage.”
State Sen. Ed Murray, who sponsored the marriage equality bill in the Senate, welcomed the gathered audience to the “other side of the rainbow.” He thanked “courageous legislators, Democrat and Republican” who supported the bill despite the potential for backlash. And he, like Pederson, gave the lion’s share of credit for the bill’s passage to Governor Gregoire, who received prolonged applause and the chanting of “Thank you,” from the crowd.
A local pastor, Ken Hutcherson of the Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, has already vowed a referendum on the measure, as has the National Organization for Marriage.
NOM leader Brian Brown told CBN “we’re going to be able to get the signatures very quickly.”
State law requires that more than 120,000 signatures be gathered to put an issue on the ballot. And while Brown and many others believe a referendum is likely this November, marriage equality supporters believe Washington voters will reject it.
But proponents of the law expressed confidence that voters would sustain the measure, if put to a vote this November.
“The wide margins by which the marriage equality bill passed both the House and the Senate demonstrates the rapidly growing support in the state of Washington for ending state sanctioned discrimination in the issuance of marriage licenses,” said Josh Friedes, Marriage Equality Director for the statewide gay political group, Equal Rights Washington. ERW is part of a large coalition of groups seeking marriage equality in the state, including the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood Northwest, NARAL, the National Organization for Women, and numerous unions, Jewish and religious groups, and groups working for the rights of minorities.
Gregoire, a Democrat, began her second term as governor in 2009 and would be up for re-election this year. But she announced last June that she would not seek re-election. She survived breast cancer (diagnosed in 2003) and said her decision was a personal one, but she added that her retirement was motivated by a desire to focus her remaining months in office on addressing the state’s recession.
The Washington bill, like marriage equality bills in other states, includes generous exceptions for religious institutions to refuse to accommodate services to same-sex couples that marry.
The Washington state marriage bill 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.