Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday is expected to publicly back efforts to make Washington the seventh state to legalize marriage for lesbian and gay couples.

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OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday is expected to publicly back efforts to make Washington the seventh state to legalize marriage for lesbian and gay couples.

Sources close to the discussions said the governor will support gay-marriage legislation during the session that starts Monday.

Gregoire has supported giving gay and lesbian partners the same rights that married couples have today, but has never endorsed same-sex marriage publicly.

Leaders of Washington United for Marriage, a coalition of gay-rights, civil-liberties, labor and religious groups, have been invited to a morning news conference where Gregoire will address marriage equality. Her office declined to comment further.

“We’re eager to hear what she has to say,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage.

The governor’s support would be “incredibly important for the campaign,” he said. “It provides momentum for the campaign and helps us make the case to other public officials how important it is to back this piece of legislation.”

Democratic state Sen. Ed Murray and state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, both gay lawmakers from Seattle and leaders in the marriage effort, said support from the governor would raise the profile of the legislation and put the power of her office behind the effort.

Republican State Sen. Dan Swecker, of Rochester, Thurston County, a leading opponent of gay marriage, questioned the wisdom of bringing up the matter when the Legislature must solve a $1.5 billion shortfall in the state budget.

“It’s too bad we’d try to deal with this issue, that tends to be very divisive, in a year when we have these other major financial issues facing us,” he said.

Murray and Pedersen, however, said the Legislature is capable of tackling both issues.

Public support for gay marriage would represent a change for Gregoire. While running for governor in 2004, she supported legal rights for same-sex couples but said, “I do not believe that Washington state is ready to support gay marriage.”

In a 2008 interview, when she ran for a second term, Gregoire explained her beliefs in more detail.

“There are two issues here,” she said. “One is the state’s responsibility. To me, the state’s responsibility is to absolutely ensure equality. The other is a religious issue, and I leave it to the churches to make that call about marriage.”

Murray said the gay-marriage legislation being developed would “amend the statutes to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry and to get a marriage license under Washington state law.”

However, he said, churches wouldn’t be required to perform marriage services for gay and lesbian couples.

“My own church does not marry people who are divorced,” said Murray, who is Catholic.

Democrats hold a 27-22 majority in the state Senate and a 56-42 advantage in the state House. However, some conservative Democrats in the Senate have voted with Republicans when it comes to extending rights to same-sex couples.

The marriage-equality campaign is the result of years of effort by Murray, Pedersen and other backers of gay rights.

The Legislature first passed a law in 2006 prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, lending and insurance. The rights of same-sex couples have been expanded in a series of subsequent laws, culminating in 2009’s “everything but marriage law,” which was upheld by a public vote on Referendum 71 that fall.

Currently, gay marriage is legal in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266