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Gay marriage clears first hurdle

Amendments rejected, bill headed to Senate

OLYMPIA – A proposal to allow same-sex marriages in Washington cleared its first hurdle Thursday when a legislative panel approved it on a 4-3 vote and sent it to the Senate for a full debate.

Supporters beat back several attempts to change SB 6239, either by adding extra language to protect religious-based agencies that want to refuse foster or adoption placements to same-sex couples or for businesses that want to refuse sales or services for same-sex couples based on “deeply held religious beliefs.”

The amendments would “protect religious freedom, an item of some consequence here,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

But some changes actually went farther, Government Operations Committee Chairman Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, countered, and would “allow discrimination for any purpose by anyone.”

The committee also turned down, on the same partisan 4-3 vote, an attempt to add a referendum clause to the bill that would force the measure onto the November ballot.

“A change of this significance in long-standing state law and the acceptance of hundreds of years of societies around the world … requires more than a majority vote of the Legislature,” Benton said. “This will change our society in ways no one here can see 30, 40, 50 years from now.”

Opponents have vowed to gather enough signatures to force it onto the ballot if the final version does not contain a referendum clause. That action would suspend the law while signatures are gathered, and if enough are gathered to place the measure on the ballot, it would not go into effect unless approved by voters.

Later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the bill might still be amended in the Senate to strengthen protections for religious groups that object to same-sex marriage. But she discounted suggestions by opponents that those protections would be vetoed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“I would find that very unlikely to occur because that section (on religious exemptions) was very important to her,” Brown said.

The Senate will vote on the bill “fairly quickly” but a date hasn’t yet been set, she said.

Supporters believe they have at least 25 votes, the number needed to pass the bill in the Senate, as well as a majority who support a companion bill still in a House committee.