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Deadline looms for marriage licenses

State forms must use language that is gender neutral

OLYMPIA – Voters changed state law earlier this month so same-sex couples can marry in Washington. The question now is whether the state can change its forms to reflect gender-neutral titles by the time the law takes effect Dec. 6.

The state Department of Health, which keeps marriage and divorce statistics, holds a hearing this morning on a small but vital part of the marriage process: the paperwork.

State marriage licenses and certificates currently ask for information on the Bride and the Groom. Starting on Dec. 6 – or as soon after that as the state’s 39 counties can make the change – they will ask for info on Spouse A and Spouse B.

Or maybe Applicant A and Applicant B. Or Person A and Person B.

Whatever the department decides on changes to the marriage certificate, marriage license and certificate application, the counties can’t just snap their fingers to comply. Among the state’s 39 counties, there are 11 different computer systems that will need to be reprogrammed. Some big counties like King and Pierce use paper forms, which are printed professionally.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton has taken the lead in trying to work out reasonable changes for her fellow auditors, the local officials who issue licenses and certificates. They started last March after Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the law allowing same-sex marriage, and by late May had a proposal they thought could be ready if the law took effect in June. But opponents gathered enough signatures to put Referendum 74 on the ballot and give the decision to voters. When it was clear the measure passed earlier this month, county officials resumed work with the state Department of Health, which had some changes it wanted made.

The department didn’t want to do too much work on the changes before the election, spokesman Tim Church said, to avoid spending money unnecessarily if Ref. 74 failed or to seem to take sides on the ballot measure.

Before the department can make the changes, however, it must hold a public hearing, which is scheduled for 8 a.m. in Olympia. It will take suggestions from the public and the auditors, and make the final call on what goes on the forms, and where. Counties will have to take that information and either reprogram their computers or reprint their forms.

“It’s a very tight timeline,” Dalton said. Spokane and 21 other counties use the same system, and Spokane hopes to test the new computer program before Dec. 6, when all couples are supposed to get the gender-neutral forms. Counties can’t use the new forms until that day, but if they wait until Dec. 5 to make the changes, there’s “no way to get all the software systems up and running,” she said.

Church said the department plans to send a computer version of the gender-neutral forms to all counties in case they don’t get their systems ready. “They can put it on a Xerox in their office if they choose to do it that way.”

The state will also take public testimony this morning on proposed changes to make divorce certificates gender-neutral, although there’s slightly less urgency there. Same-sex weddings can’t take place before Dec. 9, so divorce forms won’t be needed for at least a little while after that.