(Photo: Reuters/Robert Sorbo)
Washington is poised to become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage as Sen. Margaret Haugen announced Monday that she would support the measure.
Her support marks a majority for gay marriage supporters in the state's senate.
"I know this announcement makes me the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage," Haugen said in a statement on Monday. The 49-member Senate now holds 23 Democrats and two Republicans in favor of the bill.
"I have very strong Christian beliefs, and personally I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others. I stopped judging people and try to live by the Golden Rule. This is part of my decision," Haugen said.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has expressed support for the same-sex marriage bill and the state's House already has enough voters to pass the legislation through.
The only hope now for pro-family groups is forcing a referendum on the November ballot, which would allow voters to decide whether to redefine traditional marriage in the state.
A 2011 Washington Poll, an annual survey of constituents on issues and elected officials, found that 43 percent in the state believe gay and lesbian couples should have the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. Meanwhile, 22 percent thought gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights, but their union should not be called marriage.
Major northwestern companies have come out and expressed support for the marriage bill, including Starbucks, Nike and Microsoft.
Microsoft issued a statement claiming that passing the same-sex marriage bill makes both social and business sense.
"As other states recognize marriage equality," the statement read, "Washington's employers are at a disadvantage if we cannot offer a similar, inclusive environment to our talented employees, our top recruits and their families."
The Monday hearing allowed several groups to state their opposition to the bill, including the pastor of Antioch Bible Church, Ken Hutcherson.
"I think that you are saying, as a committee and as a legislature, that you know better than God, since you think that it is a very minded, bigoted, not understanding and loving thing to limit marriage to one man and one woman," Hutcherson testified.
"If you pass this bill you're just as narrow minded, you are just as bigoted and you're just as unloving to everything and everyone who wants to get married outside of one man and one woman, two men and two women," he said. "But since you think God is not smart enough to make it fair, you're saying that you're smart enough to make it fair."
The National Organization for Marriage also stated their disapproval, vowing to fight back against the measure for the thousands of Washingtonians who believe in retaining traditional marriage.
"NOM will not stand by and let activist politicians redefine marriage, the bedrock of civilization, without voters having a say," NOM President Brian Brown said in a statement.
"Just as we mounted a People's Veto in Maine and were responsible for qualifying Proposition 8 to the ballot in California, we will make sure that voters in Washington have the ability to decide the definition of marriage for themselves," Brown asserted.
Washington first voted to allow civil unions in 2007, and voted to allow many rights to same-sex couples in subsequent years. In 2009, Gregoire introduced an expanded rights bill for domestic partnerships, but the measure was defeated and sent to referendum – Washingtonians voted 53 percent to 47 percent to allow the expansion of rights for civil unions.
Still, Washington same-sex couples are prohibited from hospital visitation and making medical choices for their spouses.
The decision by Sen. Haugen to support same-sex marriage was hailed by gay rights groups, even though Haugen has stated her opposition to the movement in the past.
"For me personally, I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman," Haugen said. "That is what I believe, to this day."
"But this issue isn't about just what I believe," she continued. "It's about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I. It's about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed."
Washington joins New Jersey as the two states strongly considering same-sex marriage bills this year. New Jersey has mounting support among state legislators, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie has stated his opposition numerous times and yesterday called for a referendum to let voters decide on the measure.
Like New Jersey's bill, Washington's proposed legislation includes an exemption for religious figures to decline marriage services to same-sex couples.
"No official of any religious denomination or nonprofit institution authorized to solemnize marriages may be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment," the bill reads.
Six states and Washington D.C. have already enacted same-sex marriage laws.
Though not scheduled yet, a vote on the bill is pending.