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Gay couples celebrate Washington marriage vote; GOP struggles with vote

OLYMPIA, Wash. – The battle to allow gay marriage in Washington has cleared a major hurdle. The Washington state Senate voted Wednesday night to approve same-sex marriage. The vote was 28 to 21. Four Republicans voting with the majority.

Gay marriage supporters packed the senate galleries hours before debate got underway. Among them Richard Cannon and Richard Bullock, together nearly 25 years. Bullock said their children from previous marriages are now grown and married.

“We have grandchildren now and it’s time for our wedding. We want the grandkids there,” Bullock said.

Bullock and Cannon said they wanted to witness history and be a part of something they’ve worked hard for. What followed was a nearly hour-and-a-half long floor debate. One that was impassioned but always civil. Prime sponsor Ed Murray is an openly gay Seattle Democrat. He called gay marriage as contentious an issue the Washington state Senate has ever debated.

“Those members who will vote against this bill tonight, they are not, nor should they be accused of bigotry. Those of us who support this legislation are not, and we should not be accused of, undermining family life or religious freedom,” Murray told his colleagues.

GOP support, rejection

Murray found support among a handful of Republicans. They included Senator Cheryl Pflug of suburban Seattle.

“Tradition, the way it’s always been, is comfortable and it’s kind, often, to the majority. But not so very kind to the minority,” Pflug said.

But her fellow Republican, Dan Swecker warned that gay marriage will lead to the silencing of those who believe marriage should be between one man and one woman.

“Can people who want to redefine marriage tolerate the fact that much of the population regards traditional marriage as the best way to bring up the next generation of children?” Swecker asked.

Another no vote was cast by longtime Democratic state Senator Jim Hargrove. He said his faith could not allow him to support gay marriage. Choking up, he asked forgiveness to anyone he might offend.

“But I have to do what I believe is right and for me right is voting against this bill and I have the utmost respect for Senator Murray who for my part is a very good friend,” Hargrove said.

Background from The Associated Press

The debate over same-sex marriage in Washington state has changed significantly since lawmakers passed Washington's Defense of Marriage Act in 1998, which banned gay marriage. The constitutionality of DOMA was ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2006, but earlier that year, a gay civil rights measure passed after nearly 30 years of failure.

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 the so-called "everything but marriage law" that was upheld by voters after opponents filed a referendum to challenge it.

Under the measure that passed Wednesday, the more than 9,300 couples currently registered in domestic partnerships would have two years to either dissolve their relationship or get married. Domestic partnerships that aren't ended prior to June 30, 2014, would automatically become marriages.

Domestic partnerships would remain for senior couples where at least one partner is 62 years old or older. That provision was included to help seniors who don't remarry out of fear they could lose certain pension or Social Security benefits.

Gregroire will sign bill

Governor Chris Gregoire was among those who watched the debate from the Senate wings. Senator Murray closed with a promise that if gay marriage becomes the law of Washington every senator will get an invitation to his and his partner’s wedding no matter how they voted. And with that the votes were tallied: 28 yays, 21 nays.

Afterwards, ecstatic supporters gathered in the rotunda of the state capitol. Barb Glenn held a poster celebrating 30 years with her partner Susan.

“I’m 56. I just didn’t expect it. And I’m so happy. So happy,” Glenn said.

Next up, the House will debate the measure as early as next week. It’s expected to pass. Governor Gregoire has said she’ll sign it. Opponents have vowed a repeal effort at the ballot this fall.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

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Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.