Gay Marriage Appears Set to Pass in Washington State

Supporters of gay marriage in Washington State claimed yesterday they have the votes they need to legalize same-sex nuptials, but, with a possible ballot measure on the subject looming, that may not be the end of the story.

The gay marriage bill picked up its 25th endorsement in the 49-member Washington Senate when Senator Mary Margaret Haugen announced she favored the law, giving it the bare majority it needs to pass, the Seattle Times reports . The legislation already has majority support in the Washington House as well as the backing of Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, who, after seven years in office, endorsed gay marriage for the first time earlier this month. Action on the bill is expected to begin soon, with a Senate committee taking it up this week and a House committee taking it up next week, the Spokesman Review reports .

Assuming the law does pass, though, gay marriage opponents are planning to challenge it with a referendum on the ballot. "It's not done. In fact, it's just started," says Joseph Backholm, executive director of the conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington, according to the Times . If the referendum takes place, Washington will join North Carolina and Minnesota as states voting on gay marriage ballot measures this year.

Going to the voters has proved to be an effective strategy for same-sex marriage opponents in other states. Only in Arizona, in 2006, have voters failed to approve a ballot measure to forbid gay marriage — and Arizona approved a narrower measure to ban gay marriage just two years later. Still, the results of a referendum this year in Washington are anyone's guess.

Votes on gay marriage in Maine and California have been very close. Plus, Washington voters narrowly upheld an "everything-but-marriage" law in 2009 that offered domestic partnerships to same-sex couples. In that context, the Washington vote could end up being a key test of how far public opinion has shifted on gay marriage in the last couple of years.