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Originally published January 29, 2012 at 7:37 PM | Page modified January 31, 2012 at 2:02 PM

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How much change would state's gay-marriage bill really mean?

A proposed same-sex-marriage law in Washington state would require gay couples now registered as domestic partners in the state to convert their relationship to marriage in two years — or have the state do it for them.

Seattle Times staff reporter

What the bill would do

The proposed legislation:

• Defines marriage as between two persons, rather than between a male and a female.

• Recognizes the rights of churches and other religious groups to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

• Gives couples currently in the state's domestic-partnership registry until June 30, 2014, to marry — or have their partnership converted to marriage by the state.

• Allows couples from other states with valid civil unions or domestic partnerships — but not marriages — to marry here.

Interactive: Gay-marriage laws in the U.S. by state

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Under a proposed same-sex-marriage law in Washington state, most gay couples now registered as domestic partners would have two years to convert the relationship to marriage — or the state would do it for them.

The law would allow unmarried gay couples from out of state to marry here, and would grant marriage benefits to those in civil unions and domestic partnerships who relocate here — as long as they then marry within a year.

Churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and their clergy may refuse to marry gays, without penalty, just as they're allowed to now. But there are no comparable exemptions for business owners — such as wedding planners, photographers or florists — who are religiously opposed to such unions.

Advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage are picking through the language of SB 6239 and its companion, HB 2516, as they move through the Legislature on an almost certain path to becoming law.

The Washington law wouldn't be much different from those passed in six states and the District of Columbia allowing gay marriage — and it wouldn't significantly change the way gay couples now live.

Currently, same-sex couples may register as domestic partners and are entitled to virtually all of the same state benefits as married people. The same applies to older straight couples, provided at least one is 62 or older.

Some 9,306 couples are registered — the majority of them same-sex.

Married gay couples get no federal recognition and wouldn't be able to under a new state law.

Their marriages wouldn't be acknowledged in most states in this country, including neighboring Oregon, where gay marriage is banned.

But it would become much easier for a couple to explain to a hospital receptionist or an insurance representative that they are married, instead of trying to explain what a domestic partnership is.

"People have an intuitive, societal and meaningful understanding of what marriage is," said Anne Levinson, a former judge and an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community and civic leader.

Like married people, same-sex married couples would be able to change their names without having to go to court, the way they have to now. And like married people, they could choose not to live together; domestic partners are required to share a residence.

The law would require domestic partners now in the state's registry to marry by June 30, 2014. If they didn't and their partnerships have not been annulled or dissolved by that time, the state would convert their union to a marriage.

The intention is to avoid having a patchwork of arrangements within the state, Levinson said.

That's not new. In Connecticut and New Hampshire, where gays could form civil unions before gay marriage was legalized, couples were also required to make the conversion to marriage.

The requirement doesn't apply to straight seniors or gay couples where at least one person is 62. They may remain part of the domestic-partnership registry.

Under the legislation, same-sex couples who married in another state would have their marriage recognized in Washington.

Religious groups

The sharpest objections to the legislation have come from conservative religious groups that oppose gay marriage on principle. They also have raised practical concerns about the proposal.

The legislation exempts clergy and religious institutions from performing same-sex marriages. It's superfluous language, since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution already grants them that protection as a religious right.

The legislation prohibits any state or local government agency from denying benefits or withholding contracts from religious institutions that refuse to conduct same-sex marriages.

It further excuses "religious organizations" from having to accommodate same-sex marriages or celebrations through things like hall rentals. It defines such organizations to include churchlike groups, "nondenominational ministries, ecumenical and mission organizations, faith-based social agencies, and other entities whose principal purpose is the study, practice, or advancement of religion."

That protection, however, does not extend to regular businesses — a florist or hotel, for example — whose owners may have a religious objection to providing services for same-sex marriage. They would remain subject to the state's anti-discrimination laws, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and other characteristics.

The bills in the Legislature already have been revised to address some of the religious groups' concerns. Still, many worry the legislation leaves them — and their affiliated operations — vulnerable.

The Rev. Joe Fuiten, senior pastor of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell, is troubled by the introductory section that begins: "It is the intent of this act to end discrimination in marriage. ... " Characterizing the state's marital laws as discriminatory, he said, sets up churches like his and their affiliated operations to appear discriminatory in the eyes of private funders that may in the future consider them for grants.

Cedar Park employs 500 people under an umbrella that includes everything from embryo adoption to a cemetery. Fuiten believes many of those entities could be vulnerable under the legislation. "We don't believe (the exemptions are) adequate to protect the church in its entirety — the way it actually is, not the way someone who doesn't go to church thinks it is."

Adoption services

Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese, said the organization is monitoring the legislation in Olympia. Catholic Community Services, which offers adoption services and works with the state in placing kids in foster care, tries always to place children with married couples — never with same-sex couples, Magnoni said.

In Massachusetts, the District of Columbia and, most recently, Illinois, Catholic adoption agencies stopped providing adoption and foster-care services after same-sex marriage or civil-union laws were passed. The agencies receiving public funding were required to serve same-sex couples in compliance with the state's nondiscrimination laws.

"Our concern is that the church be allowed to continue serving this vulnerable population," Magnoni said.

Attorneys say the same-sex law proposed for Washington wouldn't change how religious groups and businesses interact with and treat same-sex couples. The state's anti-discrimination law, in place since 2006, would continue to guide that.

A business now prohibited from discriminating against gays, for example, would still be prohibited after the same-sex marriage laws took effect.

"However (these businesses) are treated now, is how they will be treated in the future," said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, a co-sponsor of the House bill.

"What they are really doing is attacking the state's anti-discrimination laws, which have nothing to do with marriage."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @turnbull.

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