UPDATE: On Monday, February 13, at 11:30 am PST, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill making the northwest state the seventh in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. On this historic day in the continuing struggle for marriage equality, GOP presidential candidate and longtime marriage equality opponent Rick Santorum has scheduled several events in Washington, including a closed-door meeting at an Olympia church with a group of so-called “values voters” who are opposed to same-sex marriage. The National Organization for Marriage and its allies are widely expected to gather enough signatures to trigger a referendum measure, meaning that Washington’s same-sex couples will not be able to marry until voters uphold the law in November.
Barring any last-minute reversals, Washington will soon become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage. When it does, State Senator Ed Murray of Seattle will finally see his fifteen-year campaign come to a satisfying end. An openly gay man and passionate gay rights advocate, Murray has introduced a same-sex marriage or domestic partnership bill during every legislative session since 1997. Back then, winning same-sex marriage through the legislative process seemed an unlikely path, but with increasing numbers of Washingtonians supporting same-sex marriage (43 percent in a recent poll, up from 30 points in 2006), Murray’s dream is on the cusp of becoming reality.
In recent years, Murray’s bill has stalled in the state Senate; although Democrats control both chambers, many in the Senate are moderate and have been unwilling to vote for marriage equality. On January 13, Murray introduced a bill that would amend the state’s current domestic partnership law, which grants most of the rights and privileges of marriage, with one that fully recognizes same-sex marriage. Over the next few weeks, he was able to piece together a majority in support of the bill, including two moderate Republicans who came out in favor. On February 2, after two hours of deliberation, the bill passed, 28-21. In the end, four Republicans voted for the measure, and three Democrats voted against it.
From here, the bill goes to the house for a full vote, perhaps as early as this Wednesday, where it is widely expected to pass. Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, announced her support for the bill last month, and she could be signing the measure into law this week.
Crucial to the bill’s success has been support from corporations based in the Pacific Northwest, like Starbucks, Microsoft and Nike. Statements from these companies—such as Microsoft’s blog post entitled “Marriage Equality in Washington State Would Be Good for Business”—have lent the bill crucial momentum in the late stages and may even have tipped the scales for undecided moderate lawmakers. For Murray, Microsoft’s argument is especially compelling. “Businesses and communities that are tolerant and open to diversity are businesses and communities that can recruit the most talented people,” he said. “And it kind of robs a lot of people in the right wing of one of their main arguments—it certainly is a contradictory message for those who call themselves business conservatives to say, ‘Well, we want to make pro-business decisions, but not on this issue.’ ”
This is a type of argument that Murray hopes will catch on as the struggle for marriage equality continues in forty-three other states—most immediately in New Jersey and Maryland, where legislators are considering marriage equality bills, and in Maine, where an initiative effort is underway. “I think that to talk about how [marriage equality] is good for a community…makes a much stronger argument than to talk about discrimination,” he said. “We have a great story to tell about why we contribute to communities, why we’re a benefit.”
Such an approach lends itself particularly to the legislative route that Washington has taken to marriage equality. While seven states (counting Washington) will have legalized same-sex marriage, three of them—Iowa, Connecticut and Massachusetts—got there through court rulings. As Washington finally achieves marriage equality, it joins New Hampshire, Vermont and New York in doing so through legislation. Though some in the right have argued that the legalization of gay marriage is mainly achieved outside of the democratic process—through “activist” court rulings—they will now have to face the facts: the majority of states to legalize same-sex marriage have done so legislatively.
Washington’s impending law has, inevitably, provoked conservative organizations. The National Organization for Marriage, for example, has promised a referendum campaign to place the issue before voters in November—as well as $250,000 to take out GOP state legislators who support the bill. Eager to posture as a victim, one anti-gay pastor has even called the bill “bigoted,” following the standard Christian conservative talking point about how religious people have been forced to bow before the “homosexual agenda.” More important, however, is the threat of a ballot measure in November to overturn the law. Gay rights advocates have reason to be hopeful—a University of Washington poll in October 2011 showed that voters would uphold the law 55-38, with 7 percent undecided—but with hateful rhetoric and a campaign bankrolled by out-of-state interest groups, anything is possible.
Murray remains vigilant but optimistic. “We took a much more incremental approach,” he said, referring to the state’s gradual legislative progress on gay rights. “We used the domestic partnership law as an opportunity to engage the public in a conversation about gay and lesbian families…and people see that marriage is not falling apart, that churches are not being shut down…. It may be a model that other states should look at.”