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Originally published January 26, 2012 at 8:18 PM | Page modified January 27, 2012 at 10:31 AM

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Bill to allow gay marriage clears state Senate committee

A state Senate committee approves gay-marriage legislation after voting down several amendments.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — For Senate Democrats, the last big decision left on gay-marriage legislation is when to take a floor vote.

The bill legalizing same-sex marriage cleared the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee on Thursday with a 4-3 party-line vote after Democrats beat back several attempts to amend the bill.

Supporters say they already have enough votes to approve the measure in both the state Senate and the House, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she supports it.

It's not clear when the full Senate will take up the measure, Senate Bill 6239. Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill's prime sponsor said he's pushing for a vote next week, but doesn't know if that will happen.

Sen. Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, would only say she expects the bill to move "fairly quickly."

Democrats have been under pressure by Republicans to speed up work on a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. The GOP contends the majority party has been distracted by issues such as gay marriage.

There were several attempts by Republican opponents on Thursday to amend the same-sex legislation in committee.

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 legislation.

Swecker's amendments dealt with various protections for religious groups under the proposed law. Essentially, Swecker argues, anyone with religious objections to same-sex marriage should have the ability to decline services to gay couples.

"I have to stick by my religious faith. I really don't have any option. I think we need to give people the right to do that," he said.

Murray said what Swecker proposes "would be outright discrimination. It's not serving people at the lunch counter."

Murray and other proponents of the bill said it already makes clear that churches could decline to be involved in same-sex weddings without risking a discrimination complaint.

State Sen. Craig Pridemore, chairman of the Government Operations committee, said discussions are under way to make sure the exemption for religious organizations could not be vetoed, in order to address concerns raised by opponents. The governor has said she wants the bill to include such protections.

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.

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

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

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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