OLYMPIA – Within hours of Gov. Chris Gregoire signing a historic bill to allow same-sex couples to marry in Washington, opponents filed a referendum that would give voters a chance to endorse or reject it in November.
A Republican presidential candidate visiting the Capitol said the nation should move forward with a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
“We need to have a national debate about this,” former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum said in the House Republican Caucus Room, just down the corridor from the State Reception Room where a packed audience saw Gregoire sign the bill. “Different marriage laws in different states doesn’t work.”
In a sometimes tearful, sometimes raucous ceremony in the ornate reception room, Gregoire said Washington was “standing proudly for equality,” when its Legislature passed the bill over the past two weeks.
The bill provides “absolute” freedom for churches, religious organizations and religious-affiliated organizations to refuse to marry a same-sex couple, or to allow their facilities to be used for any ceremony consecrating or celebrating such a marriage, Gregoire said.
Opponents argue, however, it doesn’t go far enough to protect the rights of businesses that would want to refuse to provide services, supplies or facilities to a wedding if the business owner has deeply held beliefs against same-sex marriage.
Gregoire and the legislators who helped shepherd the bill through both chambers with healthy majorities received loud ovations in the packed room. As she began to put pen to paper and sign the bill, an opponent in the crowd shouted “Do not betray Christ.” He was escorted out by state troopers, who warned him about disturbing the peace but did not cite him, and he left, Lt. Mark Arras said.
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor, thanked legislators of both parties who supported the bill “at great political risk to themselves.” He and others praised both legislators on both sides of the issue for conducting a civil debate in both chambers before the vote.
“Nothing will take this moment in history away from us,” he said.
The ink was barely dry on the official version of the bill when, four hours later, local members of the National Organization for Marriage filed for a referendum to give voters a chance to overturn the law. They’ll have to get more than 120,000 signatures from registered voters by June 6 to put the issue on the ballot. If so, the law can’t take effect unless it wins majority support in the general election; if not, it takes effect June 7.
Christopher Plante, regional coordinator for the organization, said he believes opponents will succeed with a message that same-sex couples already have all the legal rights and privileges as married couples, so changing a long-established law on marriage isn’t necessary. Although six other states have passed similar laws, Plante discounted any suggestion of a “domino effect.” Other states could pass laws this year banning same-sex marriage, he said.
“There isn’t a sense of inevitability,” he said. Referendum organizers haven’t decided whether to pay people to gather signatures, but expect the fall campaign to run as much as $6 million per side.
As the referendum was being filed, Santorum was one floor up in the Capitol, talking with Republican legislators. Those meetings were closed to the public, but in a later press conference, he insisted Gregoire’s signing of the bill was not “the final word.” He said he had met earlier with opponents of the bill and told them to stand up for their religious liberties and gave them some advice:
“Don’t make it personal, make it about what’s best for society,” he said. “I think it’s important to be respectful on both sides.”
Among the crowd at the signing ceremony were former Spokane City Councilman Dean Lynch and his partner, Michael Flannery. Although they made the trip across the state to witness the historic signing, Lynch said they have no plans to marry as soon as the bill becomes law.
The two recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of their commitment ceremony, and for now, that’s enough. “We’ll get married when it’s legal across the country,” Lynch said.