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Gay marriage may come to Washington

Friday, August 6, 2004

SEATTLE -- A judge ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage violates Washington's constitution, but no licenses will be issued to gay couples until the state Supreme Court reviews the case.

King County Superior Court Judge William L. Downing called the ban a denial of "substantive due process," and said he found no evidence of the argument that children's interests were being neglected.

The ruling came in a challenge by gay couples of Washington's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act.

"The judge measured the state's marriage law against the constitution ... and the law failed," said Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, which joined in the case.

Gay-marriage supporters said they were confident the state's high court, now in recess, would uphold Wednesday's ruling.

"We, all of us, are absolutely overjoyed today," said plaintiff Johanna Bender.

Critics of same-sex marriage were "disappointed, of course," said Republican state Sen. Val Stevens, who intervened in the case. "What's to say we can't call a sister-brother union marriage? Where do you draw the line?"

Jeff Kemp, executive director of Families Northwest, decried the ruling's effect on children, whom he said "fundamentally need both a mom and a dad in their lives."

"What's best for kids is being neglected to fulfill the wants of a small minority of adults," he said.

Six couples sued in March after King County refused to grant them marriage licenses. Two other couples later signed on to the case. A second lawsuit was filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 11 same-sex couples.

King County Executive Ron Sims, a defendant in the lawsuit, said the ruling was a powerful affirmation of equal rights and that he was glad the couples had sued.

"I always believed that if the court of law addressed this that the court would conclude that the prohibition against gays and lesbians being married would be found unconstitutional," Sims said.

He said he had refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because the licenses wouldn't have any legal meaning in a state that didn't recognize them.

Washington is one of 38 states with laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Massachusetts has allowed gay marriage since May after a ruling by its highest court.

Pizer noted Washington's Supreme Court had sided with gay couples in two earlier cases. In one, the court said a gay man whose partner had died without a will had the same rights as a wife seeking distribution of property that she and her husband acquired together. In the other, the court rejected a challenge of domestic-partner benefits for gay and lesbian workers in Vancouver, Wash.

An appeal could be heard later this year, said Jennifer Pizer, co-counsel in the case for Lambda Legal Defense.


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