Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday she wants Washington to become the seventh state in the nation to make gay marriage legal.
She said at a news conference she'll introduce legislation that, if passed, would allow same-sex marriage in Washington state. The Democrat had previously supported efforts to expand the state's current law on domestic partner rights for gay couples, but had not previously come out in favor of full marriage rights.
"I can't sit here any longer and say it's OK to discriminate," she said. "I have not liked where I have been for seven years and I have sorted it out in my head and heart. What's more important to me is I believe in equality and respect for all citizens."
In November, a coalition called Washington United for Marriage announced it would lobby the Legislature to approve a gay marriage this year. In 2009 the Legislature passed, and voters later upheld, a bill that greatly expanded the rights of same-sex domestic partners. That measure was known as the "everything but marriage" bill. Nearly 19,000 people in Washington state are registered as domestic partners.
"My church, all the churches, can exercise their freedom on deciding who to marry, but the state of Washington cannot, cannot, engage in discrimination," the governor said.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for the start of a 60-day legislative session.
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, a gay lawmaker who has spearheaded past gay rights and domestic partnership laws in the state, said the underlying domestic partnership law has helped lay the groundwork for full marriage. Murray and Rep. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, said a bill would be introduced next week.
They said that they would not attach a referendum clause to the bill, which would require the public to ultimately approve the measure if passed by the Legislature.
"We need to take this vote, we need to take it this year, and we need to take it in the Legislature," Murray said. "It's time for the Legislature to catch up with the public."
Murray acknowledged that it would be a tough battle in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 27-22 majority, but where some conservative Democrats have voted with Republicans in opposition to the state's domestic partnership law.
"We're not there yet," he said. "We're a few votes short, but I think we can get there."
Democrats hold a 56-42 majority in the House.
Pedersen noted that there also wasn't a plan to add an emergency clause, which would have the bill take effect immediately if passed. The lack of an emergency clause allows any opposition time to gather signatures for a referendum seeking to overturn a measure passed by the Legislature.
"We need to be prepared for the idea that we might have to fight it at the ballot," Pedersen said.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.