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January 26, 2012 at 11:50 AM

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Gay marriage bill voted out of state Senate committee

Legislation legalizing gay marriage appears headed for a floor vote in the state Senate after clearing a key committee on Thursday.

The Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee approved the measure after Democrats beat back several attempts to amend the bill. It's not clear when the full Senate will vote on the measure.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, attempted to add a provision that would send the gay marriage law to voters, arguing "a change this significant in long standing state law ... requires more than a simple majority vote of the Legislature."

The amendment was rejected on a party-line vote along with four other amendments proposed by Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, an opponent of the gay marriage legislation. Swecker's amendments dealt with various protections for religious groups under the proposed law.

Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, said the existing bill already provides adequate protection for churches, and makes it clear they would not be required under state law to marry same-sex couples.

Pridemore said there are discussions underway to make sure the provision could not be vetoed, in order to address concerns raised by opponents, although the governor has said she wants the bill to include protections for religious organizations.

Gay-marriage supporters earlier this week clinched the votes needed to pass a bill through the Legislature, when Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, announced her support for the legislation.

Haugen's decision apparently provides backers the 25 votes needed to secure passage in the Senate, while the state House already has enough lawmakers signed on to approve it. Gov. Chris Gregoire backs the bill as well.

Opponents of the measure have promised to mount a referendum challenge if the Legislature approves the law.

A referendum cannot be filed until the governor signs the legislation.

Under state law, opponents have 90 days from the end of the session to collect 120,577 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. The regular session ends March 8.
If opponents turn in enough signatures, the law would be put on hold until the election. If upheld by voters, the law then would go into effect Dec. 6.

Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

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