Friday, January 27, 2006

Finally, Washington Passes Gay Rights Bill

[[L A W]] * Well, it’s about frickin’ time. After 29 years of trying, and nine months after opposition from the Microsoft Corporation helped kill a previous effort, the Washington State Legislature today approved a landmark bill outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, and lending. This piece of legislation, which originated as House Bill 2661, passed the state Senate on a mostly party-line vote of 25-23, with two conservative Democrats, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, siding with minority Republicans against the bill, and a single GOP senator--Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland--joining with Democrats to endorse it. The state House passed the same bill a week ago by a 60-37 vote. Governor Christine Gregoire, a first-term Democrat who pushed for the anti-discrimination measure, hopes to sign it into law next Tuesday.

Debate on the measure was both tense and, at times, acrimonious. Finkbeiner, who had voted against similar legislation last year, proved to be one of the most articulate proponents of anti-discrimination this time around. “This has been a terribly difficult issue for me,” he remarked during Senate deliberations on the controversial measure. “What we are really talking about here is ... whether or not it’s OK to be gay or homosexual in this state ... whether or not it’s appropriate to be discriminating against or to discriminate against someone because of that.” He added, much to the consternation of religious rightists and many fellow Republicans, “People don’t choose this. We don’t choose who we love, the heart chooses who we love.”

With the approval of HB 2661, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Washington becomes “the 17th state passing such laws covering gays and lesbians, and the seventh to protect transgender people.” “I’m very happy,” said Representative Ed Murray, an openly gay legislator from Seattle who has been sponsoring versions of this measure for the last 11 years. “It’s a moment of joy.” However, opponents such as Senator Bob Oke, a Republican from the small Olympia Peninsula town of Port Orchard (who has a lesbian daughter), groused that the new law endorses homosexuality. “I believe homosexuality is morally wrong,” he told The Seattle Times, observing that it’s “an abomination,” according to the Bible. Republicans in the state legislature fear that HB 2661 is the crest of a slippery slope that will lead Washington to overturn its 1998 Defense of Marriage Act limiting marriage to unions between men and woman. (The state Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of that act sometime early this year.) Already campaigns are being prepared by gay-rights foes to punish both lawmakers who, like Finkbeiner, supported the expansion of anti-discrimination law, and to hurt the bottom lines of companies that backed HB 2661, including Microsoft (which this year threw its weight behind the legislation).

Even if Governor Gregoire signs the anti-discrimination bill into law next week, it won’t take effect until June, 90 days after the end of the present legislative session. That is, unless opponents file a referendum on the bill, freezing its enactment. And, unsurprisingly, there’s already been talk of doing just that. “Emotions run high,” Senator Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) told the Times, “and I think it’s very realistic that there will be a referendum.” But challengers of this bill will need to gather some 112,000 valid voter signatures in order to install their referendum on the November 2006 ballot. Which might not be an easy thing to do in this Northwest state where, according to a recent poll conducted by the activist group Equal Rights Washington, 60 percent of residents favor such anti-discrimination legislation; and where, thanks to a 2004 mayoral decree, the most populous city--Seattle--already recognizes same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions for all city employees and has just seated its second openly gay member of the city council.

READ MORE:A ‘New Dawn’ and a New Political Reality,” by Eli Sanders (The Stranger); “The After Party,” by Josh Feit (The Stranger: Slog); “Equal Rights a Symbolic Gesture?” by David Goldstein (; “Timeline: Washington’s Drive for Gay Rights” (The Seattle Times); “Sexual-Orientation Bias Complaints Rare, Tough to Prove,” by Lornet Turnbull (The Seattle Times); “Upcoming Gay-Marriage Ruling Now Takes Center Stage in State,” by Lornet Turnbull (The Seattle Times).

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