Washington State considers civil unions

BY Advocate.com Editors

February 20 2003 1:00 AM ET

Gay rights activists in the Washington State legislature are pushing to legalize same-sex civil unions. House sponsors, including the four openly gay members, concede that their proposed legislation may not go far this year, but they want to keep the issue on the legislature's radar screen. They said they'll also pursue a so-called gay civil rights bill that has been circulating at the capitol for a decade. That bill has the backing of the governor and 26 cosponsors. Representatives Ed Murray and Joe McDermott, both openly gay Democrats from Seattle, said Tuesday that the civil rights bill, which would extend the state's antidiscrimination laws to gays and lesbians, has a good chance of passing the house this year and an outside chance of passing the GOP-controlled senate.

Gov. Gary Locke is throwing the weight of his office behind the antidiscrimination bill, House Bill 1809. The measure would add protections in employment, housing, financial transactions, real estate, and public accommodations. "The governor firmly believes that no person should lose a job or housing or face other discrimination due to sexual orientation," said Locke spokesman Roger Nyhus. "Washington is a fair and just state, and all people should be treated equally."

The civil union measure, House Bill 1939, authorizes same-sex couples to get licenses at county auditors' offices and then go through civil ceremonies. Clergy, judges, or others currently authorized to perform weddings could officiate. "The goal is to afford the same legal rights and responsibilities to gay and lesbian couples that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples," McDermott said in an interview. "The bill doesn't use the word marriage. There is a religious connotation with the term. If people want to discuss marriage with their church, synagogue, or mosque...with their own faith leaders, they can do that." State law has always defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and the Defense of Marriage Act approved in 1998 underscored that point. The civil union bill wouldn't affect that law, since a same-sex union wouldn't be considered a marriage.

"My preference is to be able to be married, but the reality is that this is an evolutionary process," Murray said. "The intent is not to threaten [straight] people's marriage or the institution." He called the bill "a longer conversation, a longer struggle" that might not come to fruition while he's still in the legislature.

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