OLYMPIA – After emotional debate, state lawmakers on Wednesday approved an “everything but marriage” bill granting same-sex domestic partners most of the rights and responsibilities of spouses.
The bill, which passed 62-35, now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who said she’ll sign it into law.
“This is an elegant and fair piece of legislation,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. “This is about people who love each other.”
More than 5,000 couples have registered as domestic partners since the state launched the program in July 2007. In addition to same-sex couples, the state also allows senior-citizen heterosexual couples to register. That provision was aimed at couples who cannot marry because they’d lose pension benefits linked to a deceased spouse.
Senate Bill 5688 expands on previous rights and protections lawmakers have approved for domestic partners. The new changes include labor and employment rights, pensions and insurance matters.
A domestic partner, for example, would have the right to use sick leave to care for an ill partner.
Wednesday’s vote was largely along party lines. One Democrat, Federal Way’s Mark Miloscia, voted no.
Two Republicans, Yakima’s Norm Johnson and College Place’s Maureen Walsh, voted yes.
Several Republicans argued that the bill is akin to legalizing gay marriage.
“People of faith are bracing for the passage of this bill,” said Matt Shea, R-Mead.
He said he’s worried the bill would lead to lawsuits or complaints crimping the free speech of people opposed to same-sex marriage.
Shea tried to tack an amendment granting civil and criminal immunity for people refusing to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies or otherwise objecting to same-sex marriage. If lawmakers value protecting people’s rights, he said, they should approve the amendment.
“If they don’t, I’d like to offer myself up as the first to be arrested, or fined, or jailed for denouncing same-sex marriage,” said Shea.
That drew applause, quickly gaveled down, from watchers in the House public gallery.
The bill does not touch the state’s marriage statutes, responded state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. And the state and federal protections for free speech, he said, are strong. Shea’s amendment failed.
Proponents argued that the bill is a simple matter of fairness for same-sex couples, and would help them with things like getting benefits when a partner is killed on the job.
The bill would grant virtually all of the same rights under state law, but can not supersede federal law, which does not recognize domestic partnerships.
Federal pension benefits, for example, would not be affected.
“I think there’s very little risk that extending the rights to inherit sea-urchin fishing licenses or to inherit the pension of a teacher who has passed away … is likely to result in any infringement of religious liberty,” said Pedersen.
“The principle we’re talking about is equal rights under the law. It’s that simple,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.
Lawmakers on both sides cited their religious beliefs.
State Rep. Jim McCune, R-Graham, quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
“My God tells me that the most important commandment above all others is to love your neighbor as yourself,” said state Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo “… By approving this bill today, we say to people in this state, ‘We love you and you’re protected.’”
Four states – Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts – have legalized same-sex marriage.
It was also legal in California for five months until a state referendum banning it passed last fall.
Bills to allow same-sex marriage are currently before lawmakers in New Hampshire, Maine, New York and New Jersey.