OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire’s emotional call for Washington state to legalize same-sex marriages brought cheers from supporters who filled her conference room Wednesday. But opponents were already coalescing for a fight in the Legislature and a Republican leader questioned the timing of her push on the controversial issue.
Gregoire urged the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in the state without requiring churches to perform the service if their religious denomination objects.
“It is now time for equality of our gay and lesbian citizens, and that means marriage,” Gregoire said. Six other states have legalized same-sex marriages; Washington state has a domestic partnership law that was expanded several times, with the most recent version surviving an attempt by opponents to overturn it at the polls.
Gregoire received extended applause from some 70 people crowded into the governor’s conference room as she called same-sex marriage rights a defining civil rights issue of the current generation. Younger citizens are ahead of her generation, and the public is ahead of the Legislature on it, she insisted.
The arguments used for keeping the current system of domestic partnerships instead of marriage for same-sex couples are some of the same ones used to keep African-Americans in separate schools, housing and drinking fountains under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” she said.
Although the experiences of racial minorities aren’t identical to those of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender citizens, the laws are “inherently unjust,” she said.
The call for a law allowing same-sex marriage is a significant departure for Gregoire, who for years has supported domestic partnerships and said she was concerned about the state telling churches who they could marry.
“It has been a battle for me, with my religion,” said Gregoire, who is Roman Catholic. “I was uncomfortable with the position I took publicly. I respect religious freedom, but the state cannot be in the business of discrimination.”
Legislators who attended the press conference said they believed they have the votes in the House to pass a bill Gregoire will endorse, but are “a few votes” short of a majority in the Senate. But it is time for legislators to step up and take a tough vote on same-sex marriage, said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who predicted he would get Republican votes for that measure, something he doubted he would get for a tax increase.
“Suddenly, passing gay marriage becomes easier than passing taxes,” Murray said.
Legislators said they intend to file bills that would not automatically put the change on the November ballot. But it wouldn’t have an emergency clause, which would give opponents time to try gathering signatures to force a public vote.
The last time the Legislature made changes to laws involving same-sex couples – expanding domestic partnership laws in 2009 – opponents quickly gathered enough signatures to bring those changes before voters. That law was upheld by voters, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Even before Gregoire formally announced her support for the legislation, a new coalition was forming to oppose it. The Rev. Ken Hutcherson of the Antioch Baptist Church in Kirkland, Wash., said the group began meeting Tuesday night and had not yet settled on a name but would “absolutely” fight the bill during the upcoming session.
“We’re looking extremely forward to it,” Hutcherson said. He hopes the Legislature votes down the bill, so members are on record for their support or opposition. “We do not want to give the Democrats or the Republicans the opportunity to put it on the people.”
Hutcherson, an African-American who grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, contended that Gregoire was paying back the political support she received from gays and lesbians over the years by backing a same-sex marriage bill. “It’s an absolute insult, what she said, trying to compare homosexuals with what African-Americans went through in the South,” Hutcherson said.
State Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester, a leading Republican opponent on the gay marriage issue, said he was surprised Gregoire brought up the contentious issue during a short session that has to deal with significant budget cuts. “It will be a very divisive issue. She’s just kind of fanning the flames,” he said.
The two parties have worked together in the Senate on budget problems in recent years, and one reason was gay marriage legislation was “taken off the table,” he said.
Gregoire said the state’s financial woes shouldn’t be an excuse for not taking up same-sex marriage: “We’re going to continue to discriminate because we have budget problems?”
Swecker called that a “facetious” argument. A bill to legalize gay marriage “will be very much a part of the mix” in a short, busy session, he said.