The Washington House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage on Wednesday and now supporters on both sides of the issue are preparing for a legal fight that will likely end in a referendum vote.
The House voted 55-43 in favor of the same-sex marriage bill a week after the state's Senate passed the measure. Gov. Christine Gregoire hailed the bill's passage and said she is eager to sign the bill into law.
"This is truly a historic day in Washington state, and one where I couldn't be more proud," Gregoire said in a statement. "With today's vote, we tell the nation that Washington state will no longer deny our citizens the opportunity to marry the person they love.
"We tell every child of same-sex couples that their family is every bit as equal and important as all other families in our state. And we take a major step toward completing a long and important journey to end discrimination based on sexual orientation."
Opponents of same-sex marriage have until 90 days after the legislative session (June 6) to collect enough signatures to put the issue to a referendum on the November ballot. The National Organization for Marriage, which has spent millions fighting same-sex marriage legislation nationwide, vowed on Wednesday to help put a repeal effort to a popular vote.
"We plan to submit a referendum on this to the secretary of state before the ink is dry on the governor's signature," Chris Plante, regional coordinator for NOM, told The Seattle Times. "We've got a major constituency; faith communities across the state will carry a heavy load on this. But they're not the only ones committed to retaining the current definition of marriage."
Rep. Jay Rodne, a Republican and Catholic who opposed the bill, said the measure endangers what he believes are the traditional values of marriage.
"This bill is about validation. This bill is about acceptance ... Marriage is not about self-actualization, validation or acceptance," Rodne told reporters. "Marriage is about life."
Rodne added that the bill "severs the cultural, historical and legal underpinnings of the institution of marriage," and that it "contravenes human nature and it will hurt families and children."
Experts say opponents of same-sex marriage have two avenues to stop the Washington legislation: put said repeal referendum on the ballot, or construct a new referendum that defines marriage as only one man and one woman.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling on Tuesday that Prop 8, which sought to define marriage as "a man and a woman" in California, was unconstitutional impacts the manner in which opponents of same-sex marriage try to repeal the bill.
The Ninth Circuit Court governs Washington as well as California, and although the Court's ruling Tuesday only refers to California laws, proponents of same-sex marriage now have a legal precedent with which to fight any referendum that seeks to define marriage as only a union between heterosexual couples. The Court found that states could not actively relegate same-sex couples to a lower status than straight couples.
The decision on Prop 8 and the Washington House's passage of the same-sex marriage bill has national implications, too. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose legislature is currently debating a same-sex marriage bill, expressed hopes his state would follow others' lead.
"Tonight's passage of a marriage equality bill in Washington marks yet another step forward for equal protection under the law for all Americans," O'Malley said in a statement. "It is time for Maryland to do the same."
The Washington bill had several amendments rejected by the legislature including provisions that would require same-sex couples to call each other "spouses" instead of "husband" or "wife" at ceremonies, a mandatory referendum and residency requirements of at least one month before marriage.
Same-sex marriage has plenty of support in Washington including state lawmakers, a 53 percent majority of citizens (according to a recent poll) and high profile endorsements from Washington-based companies like Starbucks, Microsoft and Nike.
In order to install a referendum repealing the bill, same-sex marriage opponents would need to collect 120,577 signatures by June 6 – a number NOM and the Family Policy Institute of Washington are confident they can reach.
"This decision fires up the base and the resentment that elites, political and judicial, are imposing gay marriage without the consent of the governed," Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of NOM, told Reuters. "I think it's going to make it easier, not harder, to get the signatures and to put it to the people."
Of the several states debating same-sex marriage bills in Congress this year, Washington is the first to clear its major hurdles. A New Jersey bill appears likely to pass through the state legislature but Gov. Chris Christie said he would veto any same-sex marriage bill and called for a referendum. Maryland has support from Gov. O'Malley but the Senate is undecided on the issue. A coalition of Maine gay rights groups announced last month that it had enough signatures to put same-sex marriage on the ballot this fall.
Washington is poised to join six states and Washington D.C. as the only states to allow same-sex marriage.