By Laura Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington Governor Chris Gregoire announced her support for gay marriage legislation on Wednesday, potentially putting the state on track to become the nation's seventh to fully recognize same-sex unions.
Gregoire, a Democrat in the final year of her second term, is backing legislation to be introduced before the Washington state legislature, which reconvenes next week.
"It is time in Washington state for marriage equality," Gregoire told a news conference in the state capital of Olympia. "It is time, it's the right thing to do."
More than 40 U.S. states have outlawed same-sex marriages, while six states explicitly allow it: New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa. Gay marriage is also legal in the District of Columbia.
Although Democrats hold majorities in both of Washington state's legislative chambers, a bill is not certain to pass because some conservative Democrats have sided with Republicans on the issue.
Rep. Matt Shea, a Republican from Spokane Valley and a House minority floor leader, said homosexual couples in Washington state already have the same rights as heterosexuals under a domestic partnership law.
"The budget crisis needs to be our focus," Shea said.
Gregoire's move comes a month after she joined forces with Rhode Island's governor to ask the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to allow doctors to legally prescribe marijuana as a medical treatment.
The 64-year-old governor, who has held the office since 2004, said in June she would decline to run for a third term in November elections.
Polls show sharp national division on same-sex marriage, and the issue is still divisive in Washington state, which tends to be split between a liberal coast, including Seattle, and a more conservative inland.
STATE MARRIAGE LICENSE
Brian Brown, president of the 800,000-member Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, told Reuters his nonprofit group would lobby against gay marriage in Washington state.
"The people of this country believe that marriage is a union of a man and a woman," Brown said in a telephone interview. "I expect the legislature in Washington state will stand up for this commitment and vote to protect marriage."
Republican state lawmakers also criticized Gregoire's gay marriage proposal as a potential diversion from Washington's $1.5 billion budget shortfall. Republican state Senator Dan Swecker called the move "bad timing and a bad idea."
Gregoire, a Catholic, has not always been a public supporter of gay marriage, but moved the issue to the fore in May 2009 when she signed a bill granting domestic partners the same rights as married couples so long as they did not conflict with federal law. Voters narrowly approved the measure in a referendum later in the year.
"Our gay and lesbian families face the same hurdles as heterosexual families -- making ends meet, choosing what school to send their kids to, finding someone to grow old with, standing in front of friends and family and making a lifetime commitment," Gregoire said.
"For all couples, a state marriage license is very important. It gives them the right to enter into a marriage contract in which their legal interests, and those of their children if any, are protected by well-established civil law," she added.
Her announcement was welcomed by gay marriage supporters.
"We're supporting the legislative effort," said Zach Silk, campaign manager in Seattle for the group Washington United for Marriage, which includes gay rights, civil liberties, labor and religious leaders. "The governor is a long-time supporter of equality and fairness."
But Ken Hutcherson, pastor of the 1,500-member evangelical Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, Washington, said he believes homosexual marriage is "bad for society" and the governor should be working to create jobs and growth.
"She should be working on getting people back to work," Hutcherson said of Gregoire. "She's not in touch. It's not a top priority."
(Reporting by Laura Myers; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)