The State of Washington may be on its way to becoming the seventh state, in addition to Washington D.C, to legalize same-sex marriage.  In 2007 Washington legalized domestic partnerships, then, in 2009 it expanded the rights of registered domestic partners to include “everything but marriage” as the passing bill became known.  Now, in 2012, Governor Christine Gregoire has announced her support for legal same-sex marriage in Washington State.

Shortly after Gregoire’s announcement, House Bill 2516 and Senate Bill 6239 were introduced by Representative Jamie Pederson and Senator Ed Murray respectively. The legislation would allow for same-sex couples to apply for and receive marriage licenses in Washington. Also in the bills is an amendment providing religious officials an exemption from performing services for such marriages.  Interestingly, this amendment changes the language from:  “minister or priest of any religious denomination” to “minister or a priest, imam, rabbi, or similar official of any church or religious organization.” Perhaps my favorite part of the bill though is an added section that includes the term “gender neutral:”

Where necessary to implement the rights and responsibilities of spouses under the law, gender specific terms such as husband and wife used in any statute, rule or other law must be construed to be gender neutral and applicable to spouses of the same sex.”

Since January 23rd, when Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, the deciding vote, announced her support, the bills have been expected to pass both the House and the Senate.  Upon passage, opponents will begin soliciting signatures in an attempt to get a challenging referendum on the ballot for public vote.  To do so, they need only collect 120,577 signatures by July 6th.

This is reminiscent of what took place in 2009 when the “everything but marriage” bill was passed. Opponents collected the required number of signatures and placed Referendum 71 on the ballot. I recall my time working as co-coordinator of the Olympia chapter Approve Referendum 71 campaign and fear that some of the same confusion will occur.  Because of the wording of the referendum, the beginning of the campaign was dedicated almost entirely to explaining that voting in support of the referendum actually meant voting in support of the original “everything but marriage” bill.  The number of voters unaware that voting against the referendum, brought by opponents, was in fact siding with them was astonishing.

Last night, just as I sat down to write about this, I received a phone call from an Equal Rights Washington phone bank volunteer. His script began by notifying me that I had donated during the Referendum 71 campaign and that they were now looking for support for ERW’s campaign for marriage equality.  I soon found myself in a long and emotional conversation as I jabbered on about how I was, at the very moment, writing a blog about the bills and, also, about the tax work I now do with registered domestic partners. He told me of his partner of 14 years who passed 22 months ago.  He explained that he did not understand, until his partner’s death, the breadth of the impact of not having the very rights he was fighting for.

His partner was a dedicated worker who refused to begin drawing social security and preferred instead to continue working. By the time he passed he had accumulated significant social security benefits. Because their relationship is not federally recognized, the surviving partner is ineligible for the same social security survivor benefits afforded spouses.  As a result of losing half of his household income, and not being eligible for the same federal benefits married couples receive, this ERW volunteer will likely lose his home.  It is these nuances of the law that have a tangible and often life-changing impact on the lives of people that do not have the right to marry.  Unfortunately, legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington State will have no immediate effect on such federal rights. We can only hope that with each state that passes similar legislation we will be one step closer to federal marriage equality.

If you do plan to marry in the State of Washington, there are some things to consider. For those who are already in a registered domestic partnership, your registration will not immediately and automatically turn into a marriage. Registered domestic partners will need to apply for a separate marriage license.  Once married, the partnership will be automatically dissolved. This will remain true until June 30th 2014 at which time, if you are in a registered domestic partnership and have not yet applied for a marriage license, your partnership will automatically be deemed a marriage. For legal purposes, the date of marriage will become the date of your domestic partnership registration.

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