Washington Legalizes Gay Marriage, Extending Patchwork of States

Governor Christine Gregoire
Governor Christine Gregoire. Photographer: Chris Joseph Taylor/Getty Images

Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington, making it the seventh in the patchwork of states granting the right to gay and lesbian couples.

The state House of Representatives approved the legislation Feb. 8 over the opposition of Republicans who said the practice would erode traditional marriage and harm families and children. Opponents are trying to mount a challenge at the ballot box in November.

Gregoire’s signature extends to the West Coast the archipelago of states where couples of the same sex may marry. New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia permit the practice. The New Jersey Senate yesterday passed a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, though Republican Governor Chris Christie has said he would veto it.

“It is a day historians will mark as a milestone for equal rights,” Gregoire said yesterday at a bill-signing in Olympia, the capital. “A day when we did what was right, we did what was just, we did what was fair.”

Gregoire, a 64-year-old Democrat, acknowledged that opponents haven’t given up. The law is to take effect in June, though implementation would be delayed if enough signatures are gathered to put a referendum on the ballot, said Karina Shagren, Gregoire’s spokeswoman.

‘Time Is Now’

“The people of Washington will say marriage equality is right for our state and the time is now,” Gregoire said.

Nationwide, voters have rejected gay marriage in all 31 referendums held so far.

At least five other states are dealing with the issue this year: Lawmakers in Maryland and Illinois are weighing legalization, while ballot referendums in North Carolina and Minnesota propose barring the practice. Maine voters may be given a chance to decide whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The patchwork of laws leaves gay and lesbian Americans with different rights depending on geography.

Gay couples who wed in Washington and the other states where it’s legal wouldn’t see their marriages recognized by the federal government or at least 40 other states that either outlaw the practice or don’t recognize it, according to Freedom to Marry, a New York-based advocacy organization that supports gay marriage.

That’s fine with John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group working to maintain the traditional definition of marriage in the legal code.

We’re Surviving

“We have this system of laboratories called the states where we can try different experiments and see what works well and what doesn’t, without imposing a national rule on everybody,” said Eastman, a professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California.

“We have patchwork laws on all sorts of things” that vary from one state to another, such as rules on custody and third-cousin marriages, Eastman said in an interview. “It hasn’t seemed to have brought us down yet.”

For advocates like Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, that translates to “a house divided.”

“We are one country, not 50 separate kingdoms, and we all deserve equal protection under the law,” he said in an e-mail. “Same-sex couples should not have to play ‘now you’re married, now you’re not’ depending on which state they are in.”

Nor should they be treated as “legal strangers,” he said, under the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. The law prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex spouses.

Courts and Votes

Same-sex married couples, for instance, may not file joint federal returns, which lower taxes, because the Internal Revenue Service defines a marriage as “only a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife.”

The Obama administration said last year it would no longer oppose court challenges to the act.

State laws prohibiting the practice also face legal challenges. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco voted 2-1 on Feb. 7 to strike down California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage to be only between a man and a woman, as unconstitutional. Gay nuptials had begun in 2008 after the state’s top court overruled a ban passed by voters in 2000.

In Washington, opponents need petitions signed by more than 120,000 registered voters to get a referendum on the November ballot, according to Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed.

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