It’s about fairness, equality

Views regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, for and against, are strongly held by many. Polls consistently show increasing numbers of Americans favoring it, suggesting a greater openness to the idea by younger people and an evolution in attitudes among the rest of us.

It’s one of those issues about which reasonable people can agree to disagree.

But a marriage license is not, Gov. Chris Gregoire insisted Wednesday, something the state should be able to deny on the basis of sexual orientation.

We agree. This state’s expansion of rights afforded to same-sex couples through domestic partnerships, a process that began five years ago, is commendable but incomplete. It recognizes most of the legal rights and obligations of marriage, but leaves same-sex couples a separate, inherently unequal, class.

We believe the time has come for Washington to join six other states, as well as the District of Columbia and the Suquamish Indian Tribe on the Kitsap Peninsula, in standing up for simple fairness and equality by legalizing same-sex marriage. The Legislature should approve it during the session that begins Monday.

We understand that people will disagree, some strongly. Religious convictions are at the core of many people’s beliefs regarding marriage. Religious freedom is a basic tenet of American culture and U.S. law, and must be respected. Gregoire was clear Wednesday that nothing in the bill she’ll introduce can or will force any church to perform any marriage ceremony against its will.

This is a question of secular law, of whether the state should deny rights to one class of people — in this case, a marriage license for a same-sex couple — it confers upon others.

It’s also a matter of compassion — of allowing two people to express their love and commitment the way others do. “We’re married,” conveys a common understanding of family. “We’re domestic partners” does not.

If the Legislature approves same-sex marriage — and yes, it has enough time and intellectual capacity to do that and address pressing budget issues — opponents will have the opportunity to mount a referendum campaign to put the issue on the November ballot.

That’s what was done in 2009 with Referendum 71, which completed the process of extending the rights and obligations of marriage to domestic partnerships. Washington voters endorsed that law by a 53-47 margin. We suspect that if asked in 2012, most of them would also support same-sex marriage.

Social evolution is a constant theme in American history. As Gregoire noted Wednesday, it wasn’t until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional.

In America, justice eventually arcs toward equality.

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