Washington state lawmakers voted to approve gay marriage Wednesday, setting the stage for the state to become the seventh in the nation to allow same-sex couples to wed.
The action comes a day after a federal appeals court declared California's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, saying it was a violation of the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples.
The Washington House passed the bill on a 55-43 vote. Supporters in the public viewing galleries stood and cheered as many on the Democratic side of the House floor hugged after the vote.
The state Senate approved the measure last week, and the bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is expected to sign it into law next week.
Gregoire watched the vote in the wings with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Ed Murray, who is gay and has sponsored gay rights legislation for years. Murray said the vote marked "a day that will be remembered in the history of this state."
Gregoire issued a statement after the vote, saying it was "a major step toward completing a long and important journey to end discrimination based on sexual orientation."
Democratic Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a gay lawmaker from Seattle who also has sponsored gay rights bills for several years, said that he and his partner have been grateful for the rights that exist under the state's domestic partnership laws but such protections are "a pale and inadequate substitute for marriage."
Pedersen, during his remarks on the House floor, read from Tuesday's ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing a section that stated "marriage is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults."
Several Republicans argued against the bill, saying that it goes against the tradition of marriage. Rep. Jay Rodne said the measure "severs the cultural, historical and legal underpinnings of the institution of marriage."
Despite the action, gay couples can't begin walking down the aisle just yet.
The proposal would take effect 90 days after the session ends next month but opponents have promised to fight gay marriage with a ballot measure that would allow voters to overturn the legislative approval.
If opponents gather enough signatures to take their fight to the ballot box, the law would be put on hold pending the outcome of a November election. Opponents must turn in more than 120,000 signatures by June 6 if they want to challenge the proposed law. Otherwise gay couples could wed starting in June.
Several Republican amendments were rejected, including one that would have added private businesses and individuals, such as bakers and photographers, to the exemption in the measure that doesn't require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages and doesn't subject them to penalties if they don't marry gay or lesbian couples. Another would have required a one-month residency requirement before people could get married in Washington.
Two Republicans crossed the aisle and voted in favor of the bill. Three Democrats voted against it. Democrats hold a 56-42 majority in the House.
Washington state has had domestic partnership laws since 2007, and more than a dozen other states have provisions, ranging from civil unions to gay marriage, supporting same-sex couples.
Gay marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington D.C.
Lawmakers in New Jersey are expected to vote on gay marriage next week, and Maine could see a gay marriage proposal on the November ballot.
Proposed amendments to ban gay marriage will be on the ballots in North Carolina in May and in Minnesota in November.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday against California's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban, known as Proposition 8.
The panel gave gay marriage opponents time to appeal the 2-1 decision before ordering the state to allow same-sex weddings to resume. The judges also said the decision only applies to California, even though the court has jurisdiction in nine western states.
Lawyers for the coalition of conservative religious groups that sponsored Proposition 8 said they have not decided if they will seek a new 9th Circuit hearing or file an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington state's momentum for same-sex marriage has been building and the debate has changed significantly since 1998, when lawmakers passed Washington's Defense of Marriage Act banning gay marriage. The constitutionality of that law ultimately was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2006. But earlier that year, a gay civil rights measure passed after nearly 30 years of failure, signaling a change in the Legislature.
The quick progression of domestic partnership laws in the state came soon after, with a domestic partnership law in 2007, and two years of expansion that culminated in 2009 with "everything but marriage" expansion that was upheld by voters.
In October, a University of Washington poll found that an increasing number of people in the state support same-sex marriage. About 43 percent of respondents said they support gay marriage, up from 30 percent in the same poll five years earlier. Another 22 percent said they support giving identical rights to gay couples, without calling the unions "marriage."
If a challenge to gay marriage law was on the ballot, 55 percent said they would vote to uphold the law. And 38 percent said they would vote to reject a gay marriage law.
Same-sex marriage also has the backing of several prominent Pacific Northwest businesses, including Microsoft, Nike and Starbucks.