Gay rights activists watched tearfully from the sidelines as the Washington State senate rejected a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and insurance. The bill, versions of which have been introduced in the Washington legislature for the past 30 years, failed Thursday by one vote.
The state house earlier passed the bill 61-37, with six Republicans joining 55 Democrats to pass it. The legislative session is scheduled to end Sunday, so the bill appears solidly dead for this year.
Supporters vowed to keep trying. The measure was first introduced by the state's first openly gay lawmaker, Cal Anderson of Seattle, who died of AIDS complications in 1995. "The senate Republicans chose to stand on the steps of justice and to block entry for gay and lesbian citizens of Washington State," said Rep. Ed Murray, Democrat from Seattle, the bill's sponsor and one of four openly gay legislators. "We have exposed bigotry and prejudice.... We didn't win today, but we will win."
Senate Democrats have struggled to bring the bill to a vote all session, and they knew Thursday they might not have the votes to pass it. Two Democrats, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, joined 23 Republicans in defeating the bill 25-24. "I believe adultery is wrong, I believe sex outside marriage is wrong, I believe homosexuality is wrong. Therefore, I cannot give government protection to this behavior," Hargrove said.
Still, senate majority leader Lisa Brown, a Democrat from Spokane, said supporters accomplished something by bringing the bill up for a public vote. "The people of Washington want to know what we believe and how we vote on these issues," Brown said.
The bill's supporters praised Gov. Christine Gregoire for her leadership. Murray said Gregoire had done more to support the bill than any previous governor. "I remain committed to ending discrimination," Gregoire said Thursday in a news release, "and I urge all my fellow citizens to do all we can, individually and as a community, to make Washington a safe and welcoming place for all people
to live and work."
There were tears and grim faces on the Democratic side of the senate after the vote, but the mood wasn't much lighter on the Republican side. It was a tough "no" vote for several Republicans from moderate suburban districts--including the senate minority leader, Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland. "I was very conflicted on this bill," said Finkbeiner, a former Democrat who actually supported the bill once before when he was a house member. "I don't think there's anything wrong with being gay."
He said he opposes discrimination but voted against the bill for two main reasons: because he thought it could interfere with the current state supreme court case on same-sex marriage and because he is the leader of the senate Republican caucus. "To me," he said, "this isn't a rights issue."
Finkbeiner said he doesn't think Democrats should use the issue as a political football. He also said he believes his vote reflected his district.
That belief will probably be put to the test. Equal Rights Washington, a group formed to support the gay civil rights bill, plans to campaign against Finkbeiner on the issue. They may also target other Republicans from suburban districts such as Sen. Luke Esser of Bellevue and Sen. Dave Schmidt of Mill
Creek. "We are profoundly disappointed at the vote today," said Equal Rights Washington executive director George Cheung. "It shows how incredibly out of step they are with what the will of the people is.... We will make sure to work hard to educate people in [Finkbeiner's) district about his role."
It's not an empty threat. Equal Rights Washington supported Sen. Brian Weinstein, a Democrat who beat longtime Republican senator Jim Horn of Mercer Island last year with a campaign portraying Horn as out of tune with his district on social issues.
The bill would have added the words "sexual orientation" to a state law that already bans discrimination in housing, employment, and insurance based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, marital status, and other reasons. Fifteen states have passed similar laws.
Supporters struggled to distance the issue from the ongoing legal battle over same-sex marriage. The state supreme court heard arguments March 8 in a case challenging Washington's ban on same-sex marriage and will rule in the coming months.
Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, a Democrat who represents a rural and somewhat conservative district, successfully amended the bill on the senate floor to add a caveat saying the state doesn't endorse "any specific belief, practice, behavior, or orientation," and clarifying that the antidiscrimination law should not affect marriage laws. She has opposed the measure in the past but voted for the bill with the amendment. "This has not been an easy road to travel down on either side of the issue," Rasmussen said. The bill, she said, "sends out a strong message that we are caring, loving people who do not discriminate for any reason."
After the Senate vote, Democratic representative Jim Moeller, a gay lawmaker from Vancouver, said he walked outside to get some air and visited a tree planted in Cal Anderson's memory. It was leafing out in the sunshine. "There will be another spring," Moeller said. "And there will be another vote." (AP)