Less than a year after the state Supreme Court upheld Washington's ban on same-sex marriage, the issue is being taken up again by the Legislature.
Two bills dealing with same-sex couples are scheduled to be announced at a news conference today: one to allow same-sex marriage, the other calling for domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples.
Supporters say the dual approach is necessary to extend benefits such as hospital visitation rights and end-of-life decisions to same-sex couples, while continuing to push for full marriage rights.
"Our goal is marriage equity, and we will work for that," said Rep. Joe McDermott, D-Seattle, one of the Legislature's five openly gay lawmakers who are working on the measures. "In the meantime, our effort is to provide immediate relief, immediate benefits, to same-sex couples."
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McDermott said the benefits sought in the partnership bill include health-care decision making, funeral planning and inheritance rights.
"An incremental approach provides the opportunity to educate people," said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines. "People may see that just because these two loved ones can visit each other in the hospital and plan funeral arrangements, the sky isn't falling."
Also working on the measures are Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who spearhead a gay civil-rights bill that became law last year.
That measure, which took effect in July, added "sexual orientation" to a state law that bans discrimination in housing, employment, insurance and credit.
Those in the gay and lesbian community who were heartened by that victory in the Legislature were quickly disappointed by the state Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in July that said state lawmakers were justified in restricting marriage to unions between a man and woman.
That decision overruled two lower courts, which had found the state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. In their writings, three majority justices in the case invited the state Legislature to take another look at the gay marriage ban's effect on same-sex couples.
Last month, New Jersey adopted civil unions for same-sex couples, joining Connecticut and Vermont as states that allow civil unions for gay couples. Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, while California has domestic partnerships that bring full marriage rights.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has offered support for extending marriagelike civil rights and protections to same-sex couples. Her spokeswoman, Holly Armstrong, said she had not yet seen the recent proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she would co-sponsor the domestic partnership bill in the Senate.
"These are very practical issues that same-sex couples face," said Brown, who said she believed the bill had a good chance of passing the Senate.
Murray has introduced same-sex marriage measures before, the first in 1997, but none has ever received a hearing.
Murray said he wants to make sure at the very least that benefits are extended this year - but he emphasized that a domestic partnership law is not enough.
"This is not about domestic partnership; this is about marriage," said Murray, the main sponsor of both bills in the Senate. "The only reason we are introducing the domestic partnership bill is to further the cause of educating the public."
Republicans said this was the wrong issue for Democrats to push.
"It's not our priority," said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. "We would just like to focus on other things."
Opponents argue that even the domestic partnership bill would erode traditional marriage.
"There's very little support in this state for gay marriage," said Joseph Fuiten, a Bothell pastor who is leader of Positive Christian Agenda, a state group of Christian organizations opposed to gay marriage. "Marriage is a unique institution. We really don't want to see it weakened or diminished in the name of so-called civil rights."
Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, who is pushing a constitutional amendment this year to affirm traditional marriage, said the issue of gay marriage or additional benefits should be put to voters as well.
"The rights of minorities should not be put on the ballot for majorities to decide," he said.