OLYMPIA — On a day filled with emotion, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen provided the drama Monday, saying she’ll back legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
Her decision puts gay marriage within political reach of lawmakers, though the fight is almost certain to wind up in the hands of voters in November.
Haugen, D-Camano Island, is the 25th senator supporting a gay marriage bill, the minimum needed for passage. With a majority in the House and Gov. Chris Gregoire already on board, Haugen helps move Washington closer to becoming the seventh state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“For some people, this is a simple issue. I envy them. It has not been simple or easy for me,” she said, adding that she has strong Christian beliefs and still to this day thinks traditional marriage is between a man and woman.
In an interview, Haugen said she’d made up her mind a while ago but waited for inclusion of stronger protections for clergy and churches which refuse to conduct or host weddings of same-sex couples.
Haugen, who dropped her demand to send the bill to the ballot when it became clear that most senators rejected the idea, downplayed the timing of her decision. When Monday began, 24 senators backed the bill and she was one of five uncommitted votes.
“I know this announcement makes me the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage. That’s neither here nor there. If I were the first or the seventh or the 28th vote, my position would not be any different,” she said. “I happen to be the 25th because I insisted on taking this much time to hear from my constituents and to sort it out for myself, to reconcile my religious beliefs with my beliefs as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy.”
Those trying to sway Haugen had barraged her with emails, phone calls and petitions in recent weeks. At a town hall meeting earlier this month on Whidbey Island, gay marriage supporters blasted her with one person calling her a “homophobe.” Haugen said the episode didn’t give her pause about her decision.
“Actually, it made me listen. I listened,” she said Monday afternoon. “I’ve had letters from people that really tore my heart out.”
Monday, gay marriage backers cheered loudly when Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of the Senate’s gay marriage bill, announced Haugen’s decision at a news conference.
“It is an exciting day,” said Grethe Cammermeyer of Whidbey Island, the retired Army colonel who became a national figure in the fight to abolish federal law preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. “She will know how proud we are of her.”
Diane Divelbess, Cammermeyer’s partner, said she knew the senator had been struggling for a long time.
“You just wanted to say, ‘C’mon Mary Margaret, we know you can do it,’ ” she said. “Today, it’s really thrilling.”
Haugen’s decision made one foe smile.
The issue will likely head to the voters, said Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal arm of Focus on the Family group that has fought gay marriage legislation across the country.
“Americans are married to the institution of marriage. Red states, blue states, north, south, east and west,” Nimocks said. “They understand the definition of marriage. They don’t need to have the Legislature tell them what it is.”
Haugen met with the governor about the issue Friday. She told Murray and his partner of her decision Monday morning — shortly before the two of them went to testify on the gay marriage bill in front of a Senate committee.
Supporters and opponents filled the hearing room. Several hundred others watched it in various places around the Capitol campus — including on televisions from the Senate gallery and outside the House and Senate chambers.
In the two-hour hearing, foes said lawmakers would be substituting their judgement for the teachings of the Bible if they redefine marriage.
“I do not think God is excited about (the bill) because I think you’re saying you know better than God,” said Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church and member of a coalition of social and religious conservatives opposing the bill.
Others urged voters be given the final say.
“The institution of marriage does not belong to the Legislature. It belongs to the people,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. “We should be able to agree that this issue is at least as important as sales tax and income tax policy.”
Backers, including two veterans and Washington State Patrol sergeant, said that while the state’s domestic partnership law provides all the rights and benefits of marriage, without legal recognition their relationships are not equal to married couples under the law.
“It is a marriage and deserving of that title,” Tim Foley, the sergeant, said of his year-old registered partnership.
New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.
If gay marriage becomes legal in Washington, supporters know it will require a historic effort to keep it. Voters have yet to back legalization of same-sex marriage via the ballot. Nimocks said in 31 contests centered on marriage, voters have sided with defining it as between a man and a woman and have never endorsed a definition allowing for gays to marry.
In anticipation of a ballot battle, community, religious and labor groups joined forces under the umbrella of Washington United for Marriage to support gay marriage. Supporters say there’s evidence the mood of the electorate is rapidly changing in favor of same-sex marriage.
“It will be difficult, there’s no doubt about it,” Murray said. “I am confident the state is now with us. I think on the issue of marriage equality we are now the mainstream.”
Opponents cannot do anything until a bill is passed and signed. The later lawmakers wait to act, the less time will be available to gather signatures. Murray said he won’t try to cause a delay. Furthermore, he won’t celebrate victory until it’s in hand.
“No one is talking about leaving this until the end of the session in an attempt to game the referendum,” he said. “We still need to pass the bill. This is still the Legislature and, as you know, this is still a volatile environment.”
What the bills would do
Identical bills to legalize gay marriage are making their way through the House and the Senate. Here’s what happens if, as expected, the legislation becomes law.
• Allows couples of the same sex to marry if both persons are at least 18 years old.
• Converts state-registered domestic partnerships of same-sex couples into marriage on June 30, 2014, unless the couple marry or dissolve their partnership before then.
• Makes existing law gender-neutral so couples getting married would say they “take each other to be spouses” rather than they “take each other to be husband and wife.”
• No licensed or ordained religious official is required to conduct marriages of same-sex couples.
• No religious organization is required to provide accommodations, facilities, services, or goods for a wedding ceremony or celebration.
Video from a town-hall meeting held by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen earlier this month: