The final tally Wednesday of votes in the state House of Representatives on ESSB 6239 legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington state was 55 yea and 43 nay.
Yet, the moment Speaker Jim Moeller (D-49th, Vancouver) hammered his gavel signifying the bill’s approval, a viral happiness seemed to spread through the House chambers.
Those who watched the tense, two-hour debate in the near-capacity galleries clapped, whistled and cheered as soon as the result was announced.
The representatives, many of whom Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43rd, Seattle) said started working toward this moment four years ago, finally tasted the sweetness of their labor.
Smiles were shared. Tears were shed. Hugs replaced handshakes.
“I’m still a little bit speechless about it all,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-27th, Tacoma). “It’s amazing, though, the happiness that I feel.”
A satisfied Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) was overheard in the wings of the floor cheekily calling the result “a pretty good day’s work.”
“I’m elated,” beamed Pedersen, who said he plans to marry his long-time partner at some point next year. “We have a lot of work ahead of us in the next nine months, but this moment is very sweet.”
The work he referenced is part of an ongoing effort to establish a group to work with the public in an attempt to gather support should the law come to a statewide referendum vote.
“We have a big campaign that has come together over the last few months and that will grow, I think, substantially,” said Pedersen. “The coalition will keep adding businesses, faith communities, labor unions, all of the folks that want to support marriage equality in our state.”
Rep. Matt Shea (R-4th, Spokane Valley), who is one of the most outspoken lawmakers opposing same-sex marriage, maintains that it is virtually inevitable that the 120,577 signatures required to call for a referendum will be collected and filed prior to the June 6 deadline for a fall ballot test.
Pedersen agrees that a referendum is a foregone conclusion and, though his caucus repeatedly shot down attempts to add one into the text of the bill, said it would be an important step in the national movement for marriage equality.
“We’re to a point where we’re not going to make more progress until we can figure out how to convince the voters to be on our side. I think doing that successfully in Washington is a possibility and I think we owe it to the rest of the country to try so that we can move the country in a different direction on this issue.”
Jinkins said she is still holding out hope that there would be no referendum filed and that her big problems now include planning a wedding for her and her partner of 23 years, Laura Wulf, complete with the green-frosted wedding cake to satisfy their 11-year-old son Wulf.
She also said she was touched by the civility displayed during what Moeller called “an historic debate.”
“I just feel so much, frankly, love for the other members of the House,” said Jinkins, “even the folks that didn’t vote for it. The care with which they spoke and the respect with which they engaged in the discussion was amazing.”
In speaking against the bill, Shea pointed to the concerns about its encroachment on religious freedom and cited Article I, section 11 of the Washington Constitution, which states there is an “absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment.”
“This nation was not founded on sexual liberty, it was founded on religious liberty,” he said. “When those two things clash, religious liberty should win out every time.”
Rep. Maureen Walsh (R-16th, Walla Walla), who has a lesbian daughter and whose husband passed away six years ago, hit back, saying that this legislation is not about sexual liberty.
“When I think of my husband I think of all the wonderful years we had and the wonderful fringe benefit of having three beautiful children,” she said. “I don’t miss the sex. I mean I miss it, but it is certainly not the aspect of that relationship, that incredible bond that I had with that human being, that I really, really, genuinely, wish I still had. I think to myself, how can I deny the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life? To me it seems almost cruel.”
The bill next moved to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s desk. The governor, who publicly announced her support for the bill in January, is expected to sign it right away.
If no referendum is filed, same-sex couples could be civilly married in Washington beginning June 7.