Wash. Governor Discusses Legalizing Gay Marriage

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire announced her support of same sex marriage in January 2012, reversing her previous stance. The state Senate is expected to pass a bill Wednesday that would make Washington the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize gay marriage.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In her first campaign for governor, Christine Gregoire said I don't believe that Washington state is ready to support gay marriage. Last year, Governor Gregoire changed her mind. She announced her support of same-sex marriage and promised to sign a bill if it passed through the state legislature. Washington is not the only state where this issue is up for debate. The Maryland legislature is also considering legislation. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie urged the state legislature to put the issue on a statewide referendum.

In Minnesota, the issue is before the courts, and a proposed constitutional amendment will be on the ballot this November. So what's the appropriate way to decide this issue, the ballot, the bill or the bench? 800-989-8255. E-mail, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Governor Gregoire, nice to have you with us today.

GOVERNOR CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: It's great to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: And why did you change your mind?

GREGOIRE: You know, I have been on my own personal journey. It's been a journey for me that involved my personal faith and my role as governor and previously as attorney general, but I think my own state has been on a journey as well. Shortly after I took office, we passed what had been fought for, for years that had failed: an anti-discrimination law. Shortly after that, the next year, a domestic partnership law. The next year, we expanded domestic partnership. And the year after, the voters of the state approved domestic partnership in Washington state.

So I think I've been on my own personal journey, so too has my state. And on January 10th, I made it clear to the people of my state, my journey has come to a conclusion where I fundamentally believe it's the responsibility of the state to honor religious freedom, but that the state can no longer accept a situation in which it is involved in discrimination. And we can do both of those things, and that's what my bill before the legislature, which will go before the Senate tonight, is intended to accomplish.

CONAN: And how do you expect that vote to come out?

GREGOIRE: Well, we've been working it very hard, and I'm very optimistic that we've got enough votes to approve marriage equality in the Senate, and I know we do in the House. The issue tonight will be whether there's votes to send it out to the voters. And again, I'm very optimistic that we have enough votes to say no. It's the responsibility of the legislature to stand up, take their own vote and put marriage equality in Washington state. And if folks outside the legislature choose to put it on the ballot, that's clearly their right in Washington state, but that legislators need to step up to their responsibility and take the vote in the Senate tonight.

CONAN: Why is this do you think more appropriate for representative government as opposed to a direct vote?

GREGOIRE: You know, we have a lot of initiatives in Washington state, and it sometimes becomes very easy for legislators to say, well, I don't have to be responsible for my vote anymore. I'll just send the tough decisions onto a vote of the people. I don't think that's why we're elected. I think we're elected to represent our respective constituency, but also to make decisions and take the votes. And this one, I think, is one in which they should step up, absolutely make up their minds and take the votes.

And I think, when we do, we have marriage equality for which I would be very proud in my state. But then again, there is an option in my state Constitution if people want to put it on the ballot, they are free to garner a sufficient number of signatures to do that, and that's their prerogative. But meanwhile, the institution needs to do what it was hired to do, what it was elected to do, which is take the vote and, in my opinion, put marriage equality in our state.

CONAN: Ken?

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Governor Gregoire, we've seen opponents of same-sex marriage in the past, like, for example, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, saying let's take it out of the hands of the legislators, let's bring it before the voters. Every time same-sex marriage has appeared before the voters, it's been rejected. Why do you think that is if it's - given your change of heart, why don't the voters see - at least in the states we've seen so far, why don't the voters see it that way?

GREGOIRE: Well, again, my state has been on its own journey. For years, the state and the legislature had tried to get an anti-discrimination bill and it didn't and couldn't accomplish it. And it was by the narrowest of margins in the Senate. Twenty-five votes that was very much in that, and that happened in about '06. And then we begin to say, you know, we need to domestic partnerships. And ultimately, it went to a vote of the people after a good education campaign, and the people approved domestic partnerships in Washington state.

I think my state has come to realized it's our brothers and sisters, it's our children, it's our aunts, our uncles, it's our neighbors, our friends, it's our fellow parishioner. And as that education has come along, people have found the same journey have to say, how then can the state be involved in discrimination? That that's just not appropriate, it's not right.

And I'm particularly driven, and I think many in my state are, by looking at the children of same-sex couples and saying, somehow to them they're different. The love of their parents does not equal to that of a heterosexual couple, that they don't deserve the same respect under the law of the state. I think the people of this state are ready to embrace it. And so if it goes to the ballot, again, I'm optimistic, but that does not mean that legislators shouldn't step up to their personal responsibility and take the vote and put marriage equality on the books in my state.

CONAN: We want to hear from listeners around the country. Various states have decided this issue various ways. What's the appropriate way: in the state legislature, in a statewide referendum or before the courts? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Brent(ph) is on the line from Kansas City.

BRENT: Yeah. I believe that it should be up to the courts. Number one, I don't think that it should even be an issue, period. I'm heterosexual so, I mean, I have really no stake in it. But I don't see where the government has any right to legislate civil rights. You know, I don't see how they really even have any right to regulate marriage in any sense whatsoever.

CONAN: Well, obviously, they do. But Governor Gregoire, you mentioned you were a former attorney general. You mentioned this as an issue of discrimination. Isn't that an issue for the courts?

GREGOIRE: Well, and in fact, it did go before our court in a very divided court, 5-4. The law was upheld in the state of Washington. Again, let me just speak for my own heart and that is to say I've never believed - I've been married for 36 years. I was married in my church. My state didn't marry me, but it did give me a license. And only with that license could I be married in my Catholic Church.

Why is it that the state can say to one couple, you get a license, and to the next couple in line, you don't get a license? So we do have to guard against the state being involved in discrimination, which is what I think the state is doing right now. It doesn't marry anybody. When you leave with the license, you can have a judge marry you. You can have a priest marry you, whomever you choose. But the state shouldn't be involved in saying to one couple, you will get a license and to the next couple, you will not.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joel and Joel is on the line from Sacramento.

JOEL: Hi. In California, we had gay marriage allowed and I married my long-time partner of 25 years. And then that right was taken away by a vote of the people. Well, I think it's...

CONAN: In Prop 8, yeah.

JOEL: I think that the courts and the enlightened legislatures should be the ones to decide. This should not be put in the hands of voters because they ultimately come up with the wrong decisions.

CONAN: You - come up with the wrong decisions. In others words...

JOEL: Well, because we had the right to marry for four months in California, and then it was put on the ballot, Proposition 8, which was put to the voters, and they voted to take that right away. And so now, there are over 3,000 couples in California that are legally married to their same-sex partners, but it's no longer allowed.

CONAN: No, I understand that's a legal mess, and that's going to be worked out in the courts as well, depending on what happens with the court case, which may end up before the Supreme Court. And, Governor Gregoire, a lot of people say, well, why are we debating this issue at all in the states? Why don't we just wait until the Supreme Court reaches a decision?

GREGOIRE: You know, I'm one who believes that the states are always going to be out in front of the federal government when it comes to issues like this, so we're not willing to wait for the federal government. And, you know, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court may decide, but I suspect it will not decide it for all of us, that, in fact, individual state rights would allow Washington state, if it chooses, to ensure that we have marriage equality. I believe legally that the country has a problem, and I would hope the U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately decide that.

But in the meantime, I don't think we deny recognition for same-sex couples whose love is shared just like that of heterosexual couples, who have children, who are - they are raising. We need to do what we think is right as a state and have both Congress and the court recognize as a states' right principle. This is our responsibility to reflect the equality that we want in our state.

CONAN: If the legislature passes it, you say you will sign it. Would you then put it on hold or seek to put it on hold until there was a referendum to avoid the same situation that you have in California?

GREGOIRE: No. And I, you know, I hear your caller's pain by what happened, and it was very unfortunate. But again, I really truly believe in the voters of the state of Washington. If this issue came before them, I believe that they've been on the same journey I have, and they have been educated now and are ready, willing and able to step up and say, we want equality in Washington state.

It's very interesting for someone my age where, when I was young, we had racial inequality in this country. And my generation fought it and could not understand how the older generation could stand by and allow racial inequality. If we listen to the younger generation today, like my two daughters, the very same message is being sent to my generation, which is to say, why are you denying recognition of the same sort of love between a couple who are raising their families and struggling with the same issues as any other married couple? Why can't they, in the eyes of the law of the state, be recognized?

So I think it's time for my generation to listen to that generation. I think Washington state is doing just that. So I want us to pass the law. I want to sign the law. I'm not afraid of the ballot. I do believe Washington state will embrace it and it'll probably be the first in the nation to do so.

CONAN: We're talking with Christine Gregoire, the governor of Washington. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And a couple of quick emails. This is from Jim: I've come around to the idea that gay marriage should be legalized. I believe this is something that must be approved by either the legislature or the public through referendum. If it's approved by the court edict, many in the public will feel this has been rammed down their throats. The public and the legislatures - legislators must step up and approve this as a matter of equal protection under the law.

GREGOIRE: This is from April in Cleveland: Marriage is a religious construct. Let the church handle it. Civil partnership, straight or gay, should be handled by the people. Put it to a vote by the people, not legislators influenced by pacts and lobbyists. Make sure it applies to all partnerships, straight or gay, like France.

CONAN: One more question, Governor, and that is, like Governor Cuomo in New York and like Governor O'Malley in Maryland, you are a Catholic. I wonder, did you by any chance have a chance to talk to them about their experience and how they came around to this decision?

GREGOIRE: I have not talked to - I talked, obviously, to Martin O'Malley, who's a friend of mine, has been for some time. I have not had the chance to talk to Governor Cuomo. But again, I really do believe that they probably have reached the very similar conclusion that I have, which is – and it's evidenced in the legislation that passed in New York. And as I understand it, Governor O'Malley's legislation is modeled after that, which is we must honor the religious freedoms of our respective faiths in our state. And they have a right to make their own decisions. But at the same time, that can't govern what the state does any more than the state can tell a religion who they can or cannot marry. So we need to understand religious freedom and respect it and honor it. But at the same time, that does not allow the state to say it's going to engage in discrimination.

So we've been on a similar, I think, wavelength and path, all three of us as Catholics, where we honor our own religion. I was married in the Catholic Church. My daughters have been baptized in the Catholic Church...

CONAN: And...

GREGOIRE: ...but that doesn't mean, as governor, I run my state based on the tenets of my own religion. I run it based on the tenets of the Constitution and the laws of my state.

CONAN: Governor Gregoire, thank you very much.

GREGOIRE: Thank you.

CONAN: Christine Gregoire joined us on the phone from her office in Olympia. As we mentioned earlier in the program, we broadcast last week's program from Orlando. Last Wednesday night, Ken and I hosted an event for member station WMFE, which featured a special guest, local boy Roger McGuinn, who wrote our theme song, "Politician." Originally, he performed that with the Byrds. Last week's audience got this special treat.

ROGER MCGUINN: Hello, Political Junkie fans. I'd love to be there in person, but I'm out on the road right now. And I love hearing my song on your show every week, but I thought you ought to hear the whole song. So I'm going to do it for you live right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO GROW UP TO BE A POLITICIAN")

MCGUINN: (Singing) I want to grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land. I want to grow up to be a politician and be the old U.S. of A.'s number one man. I'll always be tough, but I'll never be scary. I want to shoot guns or butter my bread. I'll work in the towns or conservative the prairies, and you can believe the future's ahead. I'll give the young the right to vote as soon as they mature, but spare the rod and spoil the child to help them feel secure. And if I win Election Day, I might give you a job. I'll sign a bill to help the poor to show I'm not a snob. I'll open my door. I'm charging no admission. And you can be sure I'll give you my hand. I want to grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land. I'll make you glad you got me in with everything I do. And I'll defend until the end the old red white and blue. I want to grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land, and take over this beautiful land.

CONAN: Roger McGuinn, and Ken, the Political Junkie, returns on - next Wednesday.

RUDIN: Yes. I will return, turn, turn.

CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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