State House grants more rights for gay couples

OLYMPIA — A bill vastly expanding rights for same-sex couples in Washington is on its way to the governor to be signed.

From there, it could land on November’s ballot for voters to consider repealing.

Wednesday, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives approved legislation giving same-sex domestic partners new privileges ranging from labor and employment to pensions and employee benefits. It passed on a mostly partisan 62-35 vote.

Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a statement saying she is “looking forward” to signing it.

“I want to thank the legislators who worked tirelessly to get this bill passed in the House,” she said in the statement. “Our state is one that thrives on diversity. We have to respect and protect all of the families that make up our communities.”

Washington law known as the Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman. It’s been upheld by the state Supreme Court.

This bill does not undo that. It does amend dozens of state statutes pertaining to “married spouses” by adding the words “domestic partners.”

These new rights, when combined with ones granted domestic partners in 2008, effectively make same-sex couples and married couples legally indistinguishable in the eyes of the state.

It’s why opponents call this the “everything but marriage” bill and Republican lawmakers said Wednesday it will undoubtedly lead to court fights aimed at making marriage legal for same-sex couples.

“If we give same-sex couples the exact same legal footing as married couples there will be legal grounds for throwing out the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead.

Supporters said it is foremost about strengthening families and treating all loving relationships equally. Though some members want the state to legalize same-sex marriage, they said this bill doesn’t do it.

“We need to have a debate about marriage. This is not about marriage today. To me this is about family,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, one of a handful of gay lawmakers. “Someday I hope to find a partner and we could take the final step to marriage. We couldn’t in this state.”

As lawmakers debated, others planned a campaign to repeal it.

Representatives of social and religious conservative groups, including the Washington Values Alliance and Faith and Freedom Network, met for several hours in Olympia on Wednesday developing a strategy for a referendum.

“We’ll be ready to make an announcement imminently,” said Larry Stickney of Arlington, who is president of the alliance.

“We see this as the marriage bill,” he said. It will be used to mount another challenge of the Defense of Marriage Act in hopes of getting same-sex nuptials legalized by judicial fiat, he said.

Two years ago, the Legislature made it legal for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples in which at least one person is 62 years or older to register with the state as domestic partnerships.

As of Wednesday, 5,246 domestic partnerships had registered with the state.

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