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Washington state governor to sign gay marriage bill on Monday

By Nicole Neroulias

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Governor Christine Gregoire plans to sign newly passed legislation on Monday to legalize gay marriage in Washington state, making it the seventh with a law on the books to recognize same-sex nuptials, her office said on Thursday.

A statehouse signing ceremony in Olympia, Washington's capital, was slated for 11:30 a.m. local time on Monday. The bill won final legislative approval from the state House of Representatives on Wednesday by a vote of 55-43.

The measure will not take effect before early June. Opponents have vowed to seek its repeal at the polls in November, but they cannot begin collecting signatures for a petition to overturn the measure by referendum until it is signed into law.

House approval of the Senate-passed bill came a day after a federal appeals court handed gay rights advocates a key legal victory in California by declaring a voter-approved gay marriage ban in that state to be unconstitutional.

Democrats, who control both legislative bodies in Olympia, accounted for the lion's share of support for the bill. The stage for swift passage of the measure this year was set after Gregoire, a Democrat in her last term of office, announced last month that she would endorse the legislation.

Several prominent Washington-based companies employing tens of thousands of workers in the state also have supported the bill, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks. Opponents were led by Catholic bishops and other religious conservatives.

STATE BY STATE

Supporters of same-sex marriage are pushing similar statutes in Maryland and New Jersey, and a referendum to legalize gay marriage in Maine has qualified for the November ballot there.

Six other states already recognize gay marriage -- New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa -- as does the District of Columbia.

Gregoire, in a statement issued after Wednesday's vote, said Washington state would "no longer deny our citizens the opportunity to marry the person they love."

"We tell every child of same-sex couples that their family is every bit as equal and important as all other families in our state," she said.

Still, the measure cannot take effect before June 7, three months after the conclusion of the legislative session.

In the meantime, opponents of same-sex matrimony said they would seek to overturn the legislation via one of two ballot measures -- a referendum for repeal or an initiative defining marriage as the exclusive domain of heterosexual couples.

The initiative would need 241,153 signatures of registered voters by July 6 to secure a place on the November ballot. A repeal would need just half the number of signatures by June 6.

If a repeal referendum qualifies for the November ballot, the gay marriage law would be suspended until the election and certification of returns, meaning December 6, before it is either repealed or goes into effect.

But qualification of a proposed initiative defining matrimony as restricted to one man and one woman would not, in and of itself, prevent gay marriages from proceeding under the newly passed statute starting on June 7.

It remains unclear whether gay weddings performed in the interim would be nullified if an initiative 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 to see voters approve a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex matrimony six months later.

The state's high court later upheld the gay marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, but ruled that 18,000 same-sex weddings officiated between May and November 2008 were still legal.

A federal judge later ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional, a decision upheld on Tuesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal experts said that ruling, while narrowly tailored to California, could ease the way for a successful court challenge in Washington state should voters ban gay marriage at the polls.

(Reporting by Nicole Neroulias; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tim Gaynor)

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