By Nicole Neroulias
OLYMPIA, Wash (Reuters) - The Washington state Senate passed legislation on Wednesday to legalize gay marriage in a highly charged vote that moved the state closer to joining six others and the District of Columbia in recognizing same-sex nuptials.
The 28-21 vote in favor of the measure -- three more votes than needed for passage -- sent it on to the state's House of Representatives, where the bill is expected to win swift approval by a comfortable margin as early as next week.
Both legislative bodies are controlled by Democrats. But the political dynamic on the issue shifted after Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat in her final year in office, announced last month she was backing the gay marriage bill.
The vote was greeted with raucous cheers from gay couples and their supporters, and with determined looks from opponents. Both groups packed the Senate's public galleries to witness the landmark action.
With passage in the House seen as virtually assured, foes of same-sex matrimony said they would seek the measure's repeal with a referendum asking voters to reaffirm marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman.
To qualify for the November ballot, they need to collect at least 120,577 signatures of registered voters by July 6.
Six other states already recognize same-sex marriage -- New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa -- as does the District of Columbia. Supporters are moving to pass similar statutes in Maryland and New Jersey.
A referendum to legalize gay marriage in Maine has qualified for the November ballot there.
CONTENTIOUS BUT RESPECTFUL DEBATE
Washington state senate sponsors of the bill had said last week they had secured a 25-vote minimum needed in the 49-seat chamber for approval there, setting the stage for Wednesday's vote. Four Republicans ended up joining 24 Democrats in supporting it, while three Democrats sided with 18 Republicans in opposition.
An emotional written statement released shortly before the Senate convened on Wednesday from one of the bill's 11th-hour supporters, Democratic Senator Brian Hatfield, expressed the personal conflict he and other lawmakers felt in backing the measure, which he said contradicted his Christian beliefs.
"Regardless of how I choose to vote on the issue of marriage equality, I will alienate myself from friends and neighbors that I have known for years," he wrote.
"A vote in favor of marriage equality will enrage those who see it as a stone cast against God and the beliefs that I and thousands like me have been raised with. A vote against will label me as a bigot who is against extending the basic rights that I enjoy to all residents of our state," he added.
The bill's chief Senate sponsor, Democrat Ed Murray, called the 28 votes "a pleasant surprise."
"I'm sincerely moved by my colleagues' courage, no matter how they voted," he added.
Murray, who is gay, told colleagues on the floor before the vote that he looked forward to marrying his partner of more than 20 years and said his Senate peers should all expect an invitation in the mail, regardless of the position they took.
Members of both sides remarked that the debate, though focused on one of the most contentious issues in politics, remained respectful.
"I felt good about how the two different sides treated each other," said Republican Dan Swecker, one of the bill's leading opponents.
Washington state's lower House could vote on gay marriage as early as February 8. Should it reach the governor's desk, Gregoire plans to sign the measure, barring any drastic changes made during the rest of the legislative session, which ends March 8, a representative of the governor said.
Both House and Senate versions of the bill include language to allow gay couples from out of state to get married in Washington. They also both include an amendment allowing religious organizations to refuse to rent out their chapels or other facilities as venues for same-sex weddings.
The Senate adopted seven relatively minor amendments but rejected four proposed alterations, including one that would have bypassed the petition process to submit the issue directly to voters in a referendum.
The legislation was moving faster than originally anticipated, said Representative Jamie Pedersen, the bill's prime sponsor in the House.
"The groundswell of support ... was much better than what we could have hoped for," Pedersen said. "Big controversial things usually get resolved in the last days of session, so this is somewhat unusual."
Opponents point out that voters have yet to approve gay marriage in any state referendum and have in some instances overturned same-sex marriage laws enacted by legislators or the courts. Gay marriage remains outlawed in more than 40 states.
Oregon voters passed a law upholding traditional marriage in 2004, voiding same-sex weddings that some counties had performed earlier that year. California voters in 2008 approved a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That measure is under challenge in federal court.
Several prominent Washington-based companies employing tens of thousands of workers, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, have endorsed Washington's legislation.
On the other side, the state's Catholic bishops and other religious conservatives are amassing thousands of Washington residents against the legislation, including voters who supported the state's expansion of domestic-partnership benefits in recent years but draw the line at gay marriage.
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Johnston)