OLYMPIA – As supporters and opponents packed hearing rooms Monday around the Capitol, Washington moved a step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage when the proposal gained its crucial 25th vote in the state Senate.
State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, announced she would vote yes on Senate Bill 6239, giving it a majority in that chamber. The companion bill, HB 2516, has the votes necessary to clear the House, said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has called for the Legislature to pass such legislation.
Barring some unexpected shift, that suggests Washington would be the seventh state in the nation to pass a law on same-sex marriage. But it would be the first state where voters have the ultimate say on a bill passed by the Legislature.
“We presume it won’t (become law) until voters decide,” Pedersen said.
As currently written, the bills don’t include a referendum clause requiring it to be placed on the November ballot. Church groups opposed to same sex-marriage criticized legislators for not including such a vote.
The issue is “at least as important as a tax issue,” said Joseph Backholm of the Family Policy Institute. State law requires any tax increase to obtain a two-thirds majority in the Legislature or be submitted to voters.
“We will exercise our rights, of referendum,” Backholm said. If a referendum challenge is filed, the law would be suspended while opponents gather signatures; if they turn in enough signatures to make the November ballot, it wouldn’t take effect unless it passes.
The hearings featured supporters who likened gay marriage as a civil right akin to the fight for racial equality and opponents who quoted the Bible, with a heavy reliance on Genesis and Leviticus.
It would be good for business, said some supporters, because it would increase the number of people getting married, booking halls for receptions, hiring caterers and photographers, buying dresses, renting tuxedos, and buying flowers, rings and invitations.
No, it would be bad, said some opponents, because business owners with a religious conviction that marriage is only between a man and woman could be sued if they refused to rent a hall, cater a reception, photograph a ceremony or otherwise work on a same-sex marriage.
State Rep. Matt Shea of the Spokane Valley, who like several Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee wore lapel buttons with two silhouette figures and the slogan “Marriage–One Man, One Woman,” said the bill could run afoul of the state constitution requirement of “perfect tolerance of religious sentiment” if it didn’t offer protection for businesses to refuse such work.
Pedersen said later, however, that state law already forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. Some business owners who testified they don’t serve same-sex couples for domestic partnerships are technically already in violation, but the constitutional provision has never been tested.
If the proposal passes, the state’s domestic partnership law would still apply to couples over 62 who want legal protections but not marriage for certain economic or tax reasons. But in most cases, same-sex couples under 62 who are in a domestic partnership would have that converted to a marriage on June 30, 2014, if they haven’t already taken steps to dissolve the partnership or wed.
Ken Hutcherson of the Antioch Baptist Church told members of a Senate panel who have already made up their mind to vote yes that they must think they “know better than God … I do not think God is excited with SB 6239.”
The Rev. Peter Sartain, Roman Catholic archbishop of Seattle, said the church opposes the bill and believes the state should continue to recognize the broad social benefits derived from promoting strong families based on the marriage of a man and a woman.”
But Rabbi John Singer of Seattle said his synagogue supports same sex-unions so the state is discriminating against the freedom of their religious expression as well as same-sex couples.
Supporters of the bills described marriage as a civil right that shouldn’t depend on sexual orientation but on a loving commitment of two people to live together and care for each other.
State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of the bill, appeared at the hearing with his partner of more than 20 years, Michael Shiosaki, a Spokane Valley native. Murray said he has waited 17 years to introduce such a bill to the Legislature; Shiosaki said they try to keep their political life separate from their private life.
“Commitment is always about being there for each other, in good times and bad,” Shiosaki said. “Domestic partnership offers many benefits, but it is not marriage.”
The Senate Government Operations Committee will vote on its bill Thursday; the House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote next Monday.