By Nicole Neroulias
SEATTLE (Reuters) - As gay couples and their supporters cheered the Washington state Senate's unexpectedly swift and decisive passage of a same-sex marriage bill, opponents were already considering how to take down the anticipated law.
By a 28-21 vote on Wednesday night, the state Senate passed legislation to legalize gay marriage with exemptions for religious organizations opposed to conducting same-sex weddings or renting their facilities for gay nuptials.
Four Republicans joined 24 Democrats in supporting the bill, which would make Washington the seventh state to recognize same-sex matrimony. Three Democrats sided with 18 Republicans in opposing it.
The measure now heads to the state House of Representatives, where Democrats hold an even wider majority and the bill's passage by a comfortable margin is expected as early as next week.
Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has said she would sign a gay marriage bill into law.
With the bill seemingly headed for swift enactment, several parallel efforts by opponents are shaping up to rally Washington voters against the prospective law. Their options included two possible ballot measures in November -- a referendum to repeal the gay marriage statute outright and an initiative defining marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman.
The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same sex marriage, also has pledged to provide financial backing for conservative challengers to the four Republican senators who supported the bill when they run for reelection.
DUELING BALLOT QUESTIONS
The proposed initiative to define marriage as between heterosexual couples, led by Everett, Washington attorney Stephen Pidgeon, needs to gather 241,153 signatures of registered voters by July 6 to secure a spot on the ballot.
A referendum to repeal gay marriage would only need 120,577 signatures by June 6, but supporters of that measure must wait until after Gregoire signs the bill before starting to collect them.
"My guess is that foes of gay marriage will be going with the referendum challenge, since it takes fewer signatures and it gives a direct vote up or down on gay marriage," said Dave Ammons, spokesman for the Washington secretary of state's office. "The initiative seems to be a backup plan."
Pidgeon, 57, said he will support the repeal referendum, too, but noted that his initiative can get started sooner and is not based on what lawmakers decide to do.
"We have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm about the initiative. People are gearing up, and we're going to move ahead strongly, and I believe quickly," he said. "We already have hundreds of churches that have already pledged thousands of signatures."
Without the referendum challenge, a gay marriage law would take effect June 7, 90 days after the March 8 conclusion of the legislative session. If the referendum qualifies for the ballot, the law would be suspended until the November election and certification of the returns, meaning December 6, before it is either repealed or goes into effect.
Under the initiative process by contrast, gay marriages could proceed June 7, regardless of the ballot-qualification process. It is unclear whether any unions officiated in the meantime would be nullified if Pidgeon's measure were to pass in November.
There is precedent in California for handling such a situation. California's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2008, only for voters to approve a constitutional amendment six months later defining marriage as a man and a woman. The state's high court ruled that the 18,000 same-sex couples who tied the knot between May and November, 2008, were still legal.
Chris Plante, regional coordinator for the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage (NOM), said that his group plans to back the referendum effort, but will "keep the initiative in our back pocket."
"We're going to go forward as a united group because what's more important than the process is the end game of overturning this law and restoring marriage to its rightful definition," he said.
His group has not decided how much money it could provide for a ballot campaign to ban same-sex marriage, Plante said, but he estimated that such an effort would cost over $2 million.
The group said it will also follow through on its pledge to spend $250,000 to defeat the Republican senators who voted for the bill, should they seek office again.
"Politicians have to understand that there's a price to pay for voting to redefine marriage -- it is not what the people of Washington want," Plante said.
Evidence of how Washington voters feel about same-sex marriage is mixed.
According to a University of Washington poll of state voters last October, 44 percent said they support the right to marry for gay men and lesbians, but 55 percent said that if such a law was already on the books they would not vote to overturn it.
According to Plante, voters in 31 states have approved ballot measures to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, and voters have never approved same-sex marriage in any state referendum. All six states to have legalized gay marriage have done so either through the courts or state legislatures.
In 2009, voters approved Washington state's expanded domestic partnership benefits by a vote of 53 to 47 percent, despite a campaign against that ballot measure.
Pidgeon, who worked on that campaign, said he believes a ballot question against gay marriage would be more successful, because people who may be otherwise supportive or undecided about same-sex partnerships "draw the line" at marriage. Such voters, he said, are now more convinced that state lawmakers are leading them down a slippery slope.
Pidgeon filed his initiative with the Secretary of State's Office on January 9. It ranks among more than a dozen initiatives proposed so far, their subjects ranging from marijuana to plastic bag use.
Evangelical Pastor Steven Andrew, president of the USA Christian Ministries in California, has called for a national boycott of Starbucks in response to the Seattle-based company's endorsement of the gay marriage bill, and for Christians to stop serving the coffee brand at their facilities and events.
"Starbucks can follow Satan if they want to. However, pastors are to help Christians. Are you on the Lord's side? Will you help the USA be blessed by God?" he said in a written statement.
Asked about the call for a boycott, Starbucks repeated its longstanding support for equality of gays and lesbians.
"Starbucks is proud to join other leading Northwest employers in support of Washington state legislation recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples," the company said in an email to Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)