By Nicole Neroulias
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Friday introduced a bill to legalize same sex marriage in Washington state, which gay rights groups hope will be the next state to approve nuptials after two-term governor Christine Gregoire announced her support.
The bill was introduced in the Democrat-controlled Senate and has the backing of 21 Democrats and two Republicans, just two votes short of a majority in the 49-member chamber.
It may take months to come to a vote in the Senate because of public hearings and committee debate.
If successful, it would then go to a vote in the state House, where Democrats have a larger majority, before heading to Gregoire, who drew national attention recently by announcing her support of same sex marriage.
"It is time for marriage equality," Gregoire, a Democrat in her final year in office, said in her state of the state address Tuesday.
"Let's tell the children of our same-sex couples that their parents' relationship is equal to all others in the state," she added.
Last year, New York state became the most populous state to legalize same sex marriage, delighting gay rights advocates. Five other states allow it: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa. Gay marriage is also legal in the District of Columbia.
Some 40 state explicitly ban gay marriage.
A University of Washington poll of state voters last October found that 44 percent of respondents said gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.
It found that 22 percent said they should have the same legal rights as married couples - although their partnerships should not be defined as marriage - while 17 percent said there should be no legal recognition for same sex partnerships.
Although Democrats hold majorities in both of Washington state's chambers, a bill is not certain to pass because some conservative Democrats have sided with Republicans on the issue.
The drive's principal sponsor, Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, 56, remains cautious about the bill's chances, even with bipartisan support from Republican Senators Steve Litzow and Cheryl Pflug.
"Our gay and lesbian civil rights bill, which took 29 years to pass (in 2006), was always one vote short and I believe this situation is pretty much the same," said Murray, a gay man who hopes to wed his long-term partner in the state.
"We are grandchildren of people who immigrated and homesteaded this state," he said. "We hope that after 20 years of basically being engaged together that we would be able to legally marry in our native state."
But opponents of same-sex marriage aren't taking any chances.
Stephen Pidgeon, 57, an Everett attorney, has filed a ballot initiative with the secretary of state's office to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
To qualify for the November ballot, his measure must collect at least 241,153 signatures of registered voters by the close of normal business hours July 6.
"That's a pretty large number, but we will succeed," Pidgeon said, adding that he plans to start collecting signatures next week. "We expect a lot of participation from the churches."
(Editing By Tim Gaynor)