Washington state poised to approve gay marriage
The expected action comes a day after a federal appeals court declared California's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, saying it was a violation of the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples.
The Washington House began debating Wednesday afternoon, and the measure is expected to pass comfortably. Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign the bill into law next week.
Washington state has had domestic partnership laws since 2007, and more than a dozen other states have provisions, including civil unions and gay marriage, supporting same-sex couples.
Gay marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington D.C.
Lawmakers in New Jersey are expected to vote on gay marriage next week, and Maine could see a gay marriage proposal on the November ballot.
Proposed amendments to ban gay marriage will be on the ballots in North Carolina in May and in Minnesota in November.
The Washington state proposal would not take effect for 90 days after the governor signs it. Opponents have promised to fight gay marriage with a ballot measure that would allow voters to overturn legislative approval.
If opponents are unable to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, gay couples could wed starting in June. Otherwise the law would be put on hold pending the outcome of a November election.
Regardless of the recent court ruling in California, Washington state's momentum for same-sex marriage has been building and the state Senate passed the measure last week on a 28-21 vote.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled against California's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban, known as Proposition 8.
The three-judge panel gave gay marriage opponents time to appeal the 2-1 decision before ordering the state to allow same-sex weddings to resume. The judges also said the decision only applies to California, even though the court has jurisdiction in nine western states.
Lawyers for the coalition of conservative religious groups that sponsored Proposition 8 said they have not decided if they will seek a new 9th Circuit hearing or file an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The debate over same-sex marriage in Washington state has changed significantly since 1998, when lawmakers passed Washington's Defense of Marriage Act banning gay marriage. The constitutionality of that law ultimately was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2006. But earlier that year, a gay civil rights measure passed after nearly 30 years of failure, signaling a change in the Legislature.
The quick progression of domestic partnership laws in the state came soon after, with a domestic partnership law in 2007, and two years of expansion that culminated in 2009 with "everything but marriage" expansion that was upheld by voters.
In October, a University of Washington poll found that an increasing number of people in the state support same-sex marriage. About 43 percent of respondents said they support gay marriage, up from 30 percent in the same poll five years earlier. Another 22 percent said they support giving identical rights to gay couples, without calling the unions "marriage."
If a challenge to gay marriage law was on the ballot, 55 percent said they would vote to uphold the law. And 38 percent said they would vote to reject a gay marriage law.