Valentine’s Day Comes Early: Celebrating an Historic Victory for Equality

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine’s Day came a day early in Washington state. Today, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill making Washington the seventh state to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples. Our state’s leaders have recognized that the relationships of all loving, committed couples need to be treated with the same respect under state law. Join us in celebrating this historic occasion by raising a toast tonight at 6:00 wherever you are.

The moment is made even sweeter as I recall the many years and scores of people that it took to get us here. As far back as 1971, John Singer and Paul Barwick were pioneers, seeking a marriage license in King County. The ACLU-WA took on their case advocating for marriage equality. Unfortunately, the state court of appeals rejected them (in Singer v. Hara).

But Washington state was an “early adopter” of parenting rights, thanks to many women and men – including Madeleine Isaacson and Sandy Schuster, two women who sought to retain custody of their children when they entered into a relationship together. In 1978, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the fitness of the parents, not their sexuality, should determine custody.

Other Washingtonians helped to move the law and culture, too. The U.S. Army knew when it drafted Tacoma’s Perry Watkins in 1969 that he was gay. Years later, when the army tried to discharge him, Perry mounted a ten-year challenge to his dismissal, and with our help, he gained the first final court ruling ordering the military to reinstate an openly gay soldier.  But his case didn’t end discrimination in the military. The litigation we did with Margaret Witt, who is in Olympia today to watch the Governor sign the marriage bill, helped end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As an Air Force major, she was a poster child for military recruitment and then became a poster child for the demise of that unjust policy.

Since John Singer and Paul Berwick tried to get married 40 years ago, much changed in both our culture and law. In 2004, 11 same-sex couples from around the state joined with the ACLU-WA again to seek marriage (in Castle v. State).  Plaintiffs included a police officer, a firefighter, a banker, a nurse, a retired judge, a college professor, a business executive, and others. Supporters of marriage equality flocked to forums and rallies around the state.

The trial court found the law barring same-sex couples from civil marriage violated the state’s guarantee of equal protection for all people. Reflecting society’s evolving values, Judge Richard Hicks noted that granting marriage equality to same-sex couples strengthens our community. He said, “Our fundamental principle is that we share the freedom to live with and respect each other and share the same privileges or immunities. We need each other.” Sadly, in the appeal of this decision (consolidated with another suit filed by Lambda Legal and the Northwest Women’s Law Center) the Washington Supreme Court – in a 5-4 ruling – rejected marriage equality.

The path may be long and steep, but the work went forward in other arenas. The state legislature soon embarked on a journey toward full acceptance of lesbian and gay relationships. In 2007 it passed a domestic partnership law which provided hospital visitation rights, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations, and inheritance rights when there is no will.  In 2009, legislators passed and voters statewide later upheld a bill that expanded those rights to include all the rights and responsibilities that opposite-sex couples have – the "everything-but-marriage” bill, as it was called.  Senior couples 62 and older could register as domestic partnerships as well. Nearly 19,000 people in Washington registered as domestic partners.

When the final push for marriage equality began in this year’s legislature, eyes were on the Senate, which appeared to be five votes short of a favorable majority. Gov. Gregoire gave the cause a significant boost in early January with a heart-felt public endorsement. A Catholic, she acknowledged that coming to support legal marriage for all couples has been a “personal journey” for her. “How can we tell some children that their parents’ love is less equal than that of others,” she declared.

One-by-one, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle similarly changed their minds and stretched themselves to do what is right, not what is easy.  Ultimately, the marriage equality bill passed by comfortable margins, first with a 28-21 vote in the Senate and then 55-43 in the House.  A video of Republican Representative Maureen Walsh’s emotional speech – about her lesbian daughter and her own decision to support the bill – has gone viral.

The story of marriage equality in our state is not over yet, though. Anti-equality forces are expected to file a referendum measure seeking to overturn the new law. That would put the new law on hold until after the result of this fall’s elections. And, confusing matters, a right-wing attorney already has filed an initiative measure aimed to prevent the enactment of any civil marriage law for same-sex couples.

History teaches us that the struggle for social justice is a long-term effort.  With our coalition partners in Washington United for Marriage, we already are making preparations to defend the legislative victory at the ballot box. We take comfort in the knowledge that the arc of history bends toward justice.

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