The most potent element of a court ruling this week that legalized gay marriage in Washington State had nothing to do with constitutional principles or legal precedents. It was much more personal. Judge William Downing ruled that the eight couples suing for the right to marry were stable, upstanding people whose commitment to each other and their families could only strengthen the institution of marriage. "Their lives reflect hard work, professional achievement, religious faith, and a willingness to stand up for their beliefs. They are law-abiding, taxpaying model citizens. They include exemplary parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, and grandparents. They well know what it means to make a commitment and to honor it," the King County superior court judge wrote. "There is not one among them that any of us should not be proud to call a friend or neighbor or to sit with at small desks on back-to-school night."
While significant, Downing's decision on Wednesday did not give gay couples the green light to get marriage licenses. It has been put on hold pending an appeals court review. If the state supreme court lets the ruling stand, Washington would join Massachusetts as the only states in the country to allow
gay marriage. As they wait, gay couples say they are trying to relish their victory and hang on to their hopes that the high court will uphold the argument that banning same-sex marriage violates the state constitution. "I'm cautiously confident. I don't think it's a foregone conclusion, but I am optimistic," said Vega Subramaniam, 39, who has been with her partner, Mala Nagarajan, for six years. Nagarajan, 36, said she expects the wait to be nerve-wracking but keeps thinking about the judge's words and cannot help but feel encouraged. "I think those words hit home for me because for much of my life, trying to deal with the lesbian label has been difficult," Nagarajan said. "To hear him say we're role models for married couples was incredibly affirming."
Critics of same-sex marriage denounced Downing's ruling, saying it ignored what is best for kids--a mother and a father--and placed higher value on the wishes of a small minority of adults. "I'm disappointed that we even have to be deliberating a well-precedented matter that people previously defined as a marriage between a man and a woman," said Republican state senator Val Stevens. "What's to say we can't call a sister-brother union marriage?"
Jennifer Pizer, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said two 2001 state supreme court rulings give her confidence that the high court will side with the couples. In one of those cases, justices held that a Seattle man's 30-year same-sex relationship with his partner was enough like a marriage to grant him a share of his deceased partner's estate. The other case gave the city of Vancouver the right to keep providing health benefits to domestic partners of city employees, including same-sex partners. "In both of them, the court's approach was thoughtful but also matter-of-fact: that the rules should apply fairly, irrespective of sexual orientation," said Pizer, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal.
Darren Carnell, who represented King County, declined to discuss any legal strategy he and attorneys for the state might use in the next phase. "It's a long, thorough decision, and we appreciate that," he said. "We'll be taking it to the appellate court, and I'm not sure what issues we'll focus on there." David Skover, a constitutional law professor at the Seattle University School of Law, said he was moved by "the extraordinarily insightful and wide-sweeping social, cultural, and political observations" made by Downing. Downing acknowledged that people "of the highest intellect, the deepest morality, and the broadest public vision" disagree over whether gays should be able to get married, but he added that it's undeniable that many people have become more accepting of homosexuality. "This conclusion is readily apparent to anyone viewing prime-time television entertainment, perusing The New York Times marriage announcements, or hearing such news as the recent report that the 150,000-member American Psychological Association has now officially endorsed same-sex marriage. The societal changes the judge mentioned...definitely legitimate the court's role in evolving the parameters of individual liberties," said Skover, who is gay and has been with his partner for 13 years.