The Washington State Senate voted to approve a same-sex marriage bill late Wednesday night, effectively clearing the final obstacle to becoming the seventh state to redefine traditional marriage.
The Senate voted 28-21 in favor of the bill, with four Republicans voting in favor and three Democrats opposed. The bill's supporters have long viewed the Senate as the biggest hurdle to pass as the state's House of Representatives and Gov. Christine Gregoire have both expressed support for legalizing same-sex marriage.
The final recourse for those opposed to the bill is to force a referendum onto the November ballot. In order to do so, opponents will have to collect 120,577 signatures by June 6.
Even then, a popular vote may uphold the legislatures' decision – a 2011 Washington Poll found that 43 percent of Washingtonians are in favor of same-sex marriage, while only 22 percent believe the state should keep the current system of civil unions.
If enough signatures are not collected by the deadline, gay couples will be able to wed by the end of June.
During an hour and a half of debate, several amendments were added to the bill which will ensure religious liberties for those opposed to same-sex marriage. The amendments clarified that religious officials, like priests, ministers, imams and rabbis, will not be required to solemnize same-sex marriage.
Religious organizations, including places of worship, faith-based social agencies and mission organizations will neither be required nor penalized if they choose to deny participation in or solemnization of same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Several lawmakers attempted to add a referendum clause to the bill, saying it was unwise to make this change without consulting the public.
"The fact of the matter is we are talking about pieces of legislation that affect less than .05 percent of the population. Do we have the authority with a simple majority to make that change?" Sen. Don Benton told the legislature.
The measure was struck down 26-23.
Washington banned same-sex marriage with the Defense of Marriage Act in 1998. Since then, however, gay rights groups have won a series of legislative battles and in 2009, lawmakers voted in favor of civil unions that gave couples the same rights as traditional marriage – they just called it by a different name.
Opponents of the 2009 bill won a referendum challenge, but Washington voters upheld the additional rights.
The statehouse was filled with lawmakers inside and surrounded by both gay rights and traditional marriage supporters outside. One Washingtonian in favor of retaining current marriage laws said she was disappointed there wasn't more support in her Christian community.
"It saddens me that there aren't more Christians here tonight," Jane Sterland told USA Today. "I'm just very grieved about this whole thing. I want to be here for prayer support against this issue."
Several religious groups have expressed their disapproval of the bill and vowed to work with traditional marriage supporters to force the referendum. Family Policy Institute of Washington, Protect Marriage Washington and the Washington Orthodox Clergy Association have all expressed their discontent and disappointment with the bill.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ed Murray, struck a conciliatory tone in debating the bill.
"[Opponents of the bill] are not, nor should they be accused of, bigotry," Murray, who is gay, said at the vote. "Those of us who support this legislation are not, and we should not be accused, of undermining family life or religious freedom."
The House will vote as early as next week. The bill's supporters say there is more than enough support in the House to pass the bill and that it will be sent to Gov. Gregoire, who supports same-sex marriage, with confidence.
Six states and Washington, D.C. currently recognize same-sex marriage. New Jersey, Maryland and Maine all have bills in Congress that stand realistic chances of passing this year.