State gay-rights bill passed 29 years after effort began

OLYMPIA — The Legislature passed a gay-rights bill for the first time in state history Friday, but the 29-year fight to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians appears far from over.

Republicans and Democrats predict gay-rights opponents will try to place a referendum on the November ballot to overturn the law. Spokesmen for some conservative religious groups said there's a good chance that will happen.

"I think the likelihood is high," said Rick Forcier, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington.

If that happens, gay-rights supporters will fight to keep their rights, said Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, longtime sponsor of the legislation. The bill first surfaced in the Legislature in 1977.

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance," said Murray, 50. "We have been willing to pay that price in our fight in the Legislature, and we are willing to pay that price if we have to fight this at the ballot box."

The Senate passed the bill 25-23, with one Republican voting in favor. The House gave its final approval 61-37 a short time later. Gov. Christine Gregoire plans to sign the bill Tuesday.

Applause erupted after the Senate vote. Murray and his longtime partner, Michael Shiosaki, ducked into the Senate Democrats' caucus room to share a hug when the tally was read. Gregoire soon joined their embrace.

A large gay-rights celebration Friday night in the lobby of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle drew local and state officials, as well as residents.

The event included a slide show depicting a brief history of the gay-rights struggle. Roughly a dozen people addressed the crowd, which numbered just under 600 before the speeches began.

"I think it's about time. We've been fighting this battle, you know, for 100 years," said Ginny Lambert, 73, of Seattle, who heard about the gathering from her pastor.

After the speeches, auto mechanic Louisa Jenkins, 36, of Seattle, rocked her nearly 3-week-old baby in her arms to Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield."

"Big night," she said, smiling, as her partner stood beside her. "Just a big night."

Opponents argued the Legislature's action could influence a pending state Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. The court is expected to decide soon whether to overturn the state's gay-marriage ban.

"Instead of a gay-rights law, you're going to have the law of unintended consequences. And the unintended consequences is that Democrats are going to be firmly tied to same-sex marriage and I think they are going to pay a price in November," said the Rev. Joseph Fuiten, pastor of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell.

Fuiten, also chairman of the Faith and Freedom Network, said he's leaning toward challenging the law at the polls.

In 1997, 60 percent of voters rejected a gay-rights ballot measure, Initiative 677.

When the Senate took up the bill shortly after 10 a.m. Friday, activity in the Capitol all but halted.

Both galleries overlooking the Senate floor were packed with supporters.

Laurel Busse-Johnston, 61, of Olympia watched with her partner of 30 years, Billie Busse-Johnston, 69. "Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgender are people, too," Laurel Busse-Johnston said. "We deserve all of the same rights as everyone else has."

An overflow crowd watched the debate on a television outside the Senate chambers. Across the rotunda, House members milled about, waiting for the vote.

Throughout the debate, Murray stood alongside Shiosaki in the wings on the Democratic side of the Senate. Asked how he was doing, Murray said, "I need this to be over."

Democrats, who control the Senate, generally were confident about the outcome before the vote, even though two conservative members of their caucus opposed the measure.

GOP Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, had said he would support the bill, giving Democrats the one-vote margin they needed. Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, was absent, providing supporters extra cushion.

Even so, the floor debate was long and emotional.

Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, gave one of the most gripping speeches, talking to fellow senators about his daughter.

"Having a child who chooses to be homosexual is very painful. I know this because my daughter has chosen the life of a lesbian," Oke said. "From the very first day she shared with me what her lifestyle was, she has been trying to change me. And I, quite frankly, have been trying to change her."

Oke said his daughter called a while back and asked to come visit, bringing her partner. "There was a long hesitation on my part and I said, 'I can't have that,' " he said. "That's called tough love."

Oke said he opposes the bill because he believes it endorses homosexuality. "By passing a law that makes homosexuality a protected behavior, we are turning our backs on the people who need our love, guidance and understanding to become right in God's eyes," he said.

Supporters said the bill is needed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

Finkbeiner said in a speech on the Senate floor that the entire debate boiled down to "whether it's OK to be gay or lesbian in the state."

Finkbeiner, rebutting arguments that homosexuality is a choice, said, "We don't choose who we love. The heart chooses who we love. I don't believe it's right for us to say ... it's acceptable to discriminate against people because of that. I cannot stand with that argument."

State law bans discrimination based on race, sex, religion, marital status, disability and other categories. The bill, which takes effect 90 days after adjournment, adds sexual orientation to that list.

Within minutes after final passage, Murray, who has sponsored the legislation for a decade, was surrounded by reporters and awash in the glare of TV camera lights. "I think this shows we are growing," Murray said. "We are becoming a more tolerant place."

More than 100 people, mostly Democratic lawmakers, family members and gay-rights activists, packed a room to congratulate each other after the votes.

"We can say to the rest of the nation our values here in this state are all about equality, and we want to ensure every single citizen is treated with respect, and that day has finally come," Gregoire said.

Said Audrey Haberman, executive director of the Pride Foundation: "The power of this legislation is it allows people to live more fully and freely. It is a tremendous moment in our history."

George Bakan, publisher of Seattle Gay News and a longtime observer of the equal-rights fight, predicted that a ballot measure on gay rights would be "the dogfight of the year, and I think we can beat them."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or Seattle Times staff reporters Judy Chia Hui Hsu and Karen Johnson contributed to this story.

Kristeanna Devenuti, left, and her partner, Jennine Matt, celebrate passage of a gay-rights bill by the state Legislature as the names of those who led the fight are acknowledged at a party at the Paramount Theatre on Friday night. (ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)