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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, to the opposite coast now where Washington may soon become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage. The bill passed the legislature yesterday, and it has the governor's support. But before it takes effect, it is likely to face a referendum challenge in November. Same-sex marriage will be on the ballot in a handful of states this year.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, supporters have yet to win a statewide vote.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: As the Washington House debated final passage of gay marriage yesterday, a small group of Catholics gathered on the Capitol steps, holding a framed portrait of Thomas More. He's the guy who got in the way of Henry the VIII's divorce plans.

COLLEEN THOMAS: He was beheaded for standing up for the sanctity of marriage.

KASTE: And a fitting inspiration, says Colleen Thomas, now that marriage is at the center of a different kind of political fight.

THOMAS: All I know is marriage is between one man and one woman for life.

KASTE: The Catholics were the only noticeable protesters. The scene at the state capitol was remarkably placid, given the heat that this issue has generated in the past.

State Senator Ed Murray says, since 2006, he and the other supporters of this bill have had a strategy of gradually warming the state up to the idea of gay marriage.

STATE SENATOR ED MURRAY: We began with a series of domestic partnership bills. Year after year, we engaged legislators and citizens in a discussion around what marriage is and built our way towards the final vote in the Senate and the House.

KASTE: But there's another reason for the quiet scene at the state capitol: The opponents of same-sex marriage have already moved on to the next field of battle.

CHRIS PLANTE: The people of Washington are going to respond in November and say uh-uh.

KASTE: Chris Plante is with a group called the National Organization for Marriage. He's just flown in to try to coordinate a repeal effort through a referendum or ballot initiative.

PLANTE: This is a national battle. Thirty one out of 31 states, when they've voted on this issue, have chosen to define marriage as one man and one woman. And, you know, there's a momentum issue that we have to talk about. I don't want to go before a legislature and say 31 out of 32.

KASTE: Similar ballot measures are coming up this year in North Carolina, Minnesota, and possibly Maine. Supporters of gay marriage think they're now in a position to win some of those.

Zach Silk is with the pro-gay marriage coalition in Washington. And he says the very idea is now more mainstream than it was just a few years ago.

ZACH SILK: Popular culture has changed on this issue. You have strong gay and lesbian characters on television. You have role models of families on television.

KASTE: Even some corporations have now decided it's safe to weigh in. The Washington same-sex marriage bill has support from big names like Microsoft, Starbucks and Nike. Still, as a longtime Democratic operative, Zach Silk knows that what really matters is the votes. He admits that in the past, gay marriage ballot questions have brought out more Republican voters. But he believes this year will be the tipping point, and that that voter turnout bonus will now go to the Democrats.

SILK: Voters that are least likely to turn out are young and urban, and this issue appeals to young urban voters almost like no other issue. It is very galvanizing. It's extremely exciting. And we believe that it could be very helpful.

KASTE: The handful of Republicans who backed the same-sex marriage bill hope Silk is wrong about this. State Senator Steve Litzow from the prosperous suburbs east of Seattle says he thinks gay marriage is now becoming a post-partisan issue.

STATE SENATOR STEVE LITZOW: You've got four Republicans voted with the majority of the Democrats. You've got three Democrats that voted with the majority of the Republicans. So, in this day and age, that is bipartisan.

KASTE: As to voter turnout, Litzow believes the effect of the ballot question will be a wash. In a presidential year, with a wide open governor's race and a state facing huge fiscal problems, Washington voters are likely to turn out in high numbers anyway, regardless of gay marriage.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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