OLYMPIA -- Gov. Chris Gregoire is publicly supporting legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington, saying Wednesday that she came to the decision after several years of battling her own uncertainty on the issue.
"I have been on my own journey, I'll admit that," she said at a news conference announcing her support of a legalization bill that will be introduced next week.
"It has been a battle for me with my religion," said Gregoire, who is Catholic.
The Democrat previously supported efforts to expand the state's current law on domestic partner rights for gay couples, but had not come out in favor of full marriage rights.
"I've always been uncomfortable with the position I took publicly," she said. "Then I came to realize, the religions can decide what they want to do, but it's not OK for the state to discriminate."
Gregoire's announcement was met with loud applause from gay rights groups who crowded her conference room.
"It's about damn time," said 75-year-old John McCluskey of Tacoma, who attended the news conference with his partner of 53 years, Rudy Henry. The couple registered as domestic partners the first year that they could, in 2007.
"At our age, we don't know how long we'll be around," he said. "We'd really like to get married."
For Mark Lee, executive director of Vista Youth Center in Kennewick, the issue is bigger than marriage -- it is one of letting gay teens know that it's OK to be who they are and to form families in which they will feel loved, welcome and protected.
He noted that gay teens commit suicide at four times the rate of their straight peers, and being able to have their relationships deemed real is a step toward helping them navigate the immense societal pressures these teens face.
"It's not just marriage. It's much bigger," he said. "It's about the long-term health of youth."
The state's underlying domestic partnership law, which the Legislature passed in 2007, provided hospital visitation rights, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations, and inheritance rights when there is no will. Under state law, senior heterosexual couples can register as domestic partners as well.
In 2009, the Legislature passed, and voters later upheld, a bill that greatly expanded those rights and was known as the "everything-but-marriage" bill. Almost 19,000 people in Washington are registered as domestic partners.
In November, a coalition called Washington United for Marriage announced that it would lobby the Legislature to approve a gay marriage bill this year.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for the start of a 60-day legislative session.
Lee said he is working with Washington United for Marriage on a public information campaign to help people get used to the idea of full marriage rights for gay couples.
That effort started in the Tri-Cities in November with a meeting at Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland that drew about 70 people, he said.
Lee said he thinks it's important that Gregoire is leading the charge to pass the bill.
"It was brilliant to have the governor be the one to introduce it," he said. "It takes the doubt out of whether the governor would sign it. They really eliminated all that."
But political activism aside, it also was a moment of personal elation for Lee, who was married to a woman in his 20s but knew something was wrong, and ended up taking a journey of self-discovery that led him to the realization of his own sexuality and a desire to help young people making the same journey.
"It's very, very, very, very exciting," he said. "I actually cried when I watched it."
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, a gay lawmaker who has spearheaded past gay rights and domestic partnership laws in the state, said the underlying domestic partnership law has helped lay the groundwork for full marriage. Murray and Rep. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, said a bill would be introduced next week.
They said that they would not attach a referendum clause to the bill, which would require the public to ultimately approve the measure if passed by the Legislature.
"We need to take this vote, we need to take it this year, and we need to take it in the Legislature," Murray said. "It's time for the Legislature to catch up with the public."
Murray acknowledged that it would be a tough battle in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 27-22 majority, but where some conservative Democrats have voted with Republicans in opposition to the state's domestic partnership law.
"We're not there yet," he said. "We're a few votes short, but I think we can get there."
Democrats hold a 56-42 majority in the House.
Two of the more conservative members of the Senate Democratic caucus expressed reservations about the measure Wednesday.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she wasn't willing to support anything that didn't allow a vote of the people -- and even then she was noncommittal whether she would vote for a referendum.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, noted that he previously supported a ban of same-sex marriages more than a decade ago and said he still doesn't support them.
"I'm not on board with it, and I don't think my constituents are," Sheldon said.
He said the measure likely would become a distraction when the Legislature is facing major budget decisions.
Gregoire called the idea of delaying action because of a challenging budget situation "reprehensible."
"The idea that we would say to someone, I'm sorry, we're going to continue to discriminate and deny you equality because we have a budget problem ... that makes no sense to me," she said.
Greg Magnoni, a spokesman of for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, said that the church would be "looking for the Legislature to uphold the current legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman."
"The position of the Catholic church is clear," he said.
Pedersen noted that there wasn't a plan to add an emergency clause, which would have the bill take effect immediately if passed. The lack of an emergency clause allows any opposition time to gather signatures for a referendum seeking to overturn a measure passed by the Legislature.
"We need to be prepared for the idea that we might have to fight it at the ballot," Pedersen said.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.