Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday said she would propose legislation to legalize gay marriage in Washington state.

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OLYMPIA — After seven years of vague answers about her stand on gay marriage, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday said she not only supports allowing gays and lesbians to marry but will propose legislation to legalize it in Washington state.

The governor rejected the notion that she’s free to back same-sex marriage now because she’s not running for re-election.

“It’s right here that frees me up to do this,” she said, tapping her chest during a news conference. “I have not liked where I’ve been for seven years. I have sorted it out in my head and in my heart.”

Surrounded by a crowd of gay-marriage supporters, Gregoire vowed to get a marriage bill passed in the upcoming legislative session, which starts Monday.

State Sen. Ed Murray and Rep. Jamie Pedersen, both Seattle Democrats and leaders in the push to legalize same-sex marriage, said they’re optimistic the measure will be approved, although Murray said he’s still a few votes short in the Senate.

Gay-marriage opponents said they would fight the issue in the Legislature and likely take the matter before voters if necessary.

Gregoire has long supported giving gay and lesbian partners the same rights as married couples, but she had never before endorsed same-sex marriage publicly. In past interviews she’s never directly said whether she personally supports it or would sign a bill approving gay marriage.

While running for governor in 2004, she said, “I do not believe that Washington state is ready to support gay marriage.”

When asked about the issue in 2008, Gregoire said, “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.”

On Wednesday, the governor said she’s been uncomfortable with her past positions.

“I have been on my own journey. I will admit that. It has been a battle for me with my religion,” said Gregoire, who is Catholic. “I have always been uncomfortable with the position that I have taken publicly. And then I came to realize the religions can decide what they want to do but it is not OK for the state to discriminate.”

Gregoire said she talked the matter over with many people including friends, legislative leaders and her own family before reaching a decision. She said that although she believed in 2004 that the state wasn’t ready for same-sex marriage, she thinks the public’s position has evolved, as well.

The Legislature 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 since then, culminating in 2009’s “everything but marriage law,” which was upheld by a public vote on Referendum 71 that fall.

Gregoire said the state should allow gay marriage because of what it means to couples.

“When someone asks me about my marriage to Mike, I don’t tell them I have a contract with legal rights. I don’t even think about that. What I say is I love my husband. I’m in a 36-year committed relationship. … That’s what marriage really means to human beings,” she said.

“They (gays and lesbians) have to have the same ability to say it’s love, it’s commitment, it’s partnership, it’s responsibility. It’s not a contract. They want to be able to stand in front of their friends and express their love just like Mike and I did 36-plus years ago. To deny that equality is just wrong.”

Josh Friedes, director of marriage equality for Equal Rights Washington, said he doesn’t begrudge the governor’s waiting so long to support gay marriage.

“We have to celebrate when people’s positions evolve on marriage equality,” he said. “Her journey was very much like so many other people’s journey, but she’s taken it publicly. I think this is going to help other people move in the direction of support for marriage equality.”

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

In Washington, 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 to oppose extending rights to same-sex couples.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she wasn’t willing to support any gay-marriage bill that didn’t allow a vote of the people — and even then she was noncommittal whether she would vote for a referendum.

Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, who was part of the Ref. 71 opposition campaign, said the same coalition has formed again to fight the same-sex-marriage effort in the Legislature this session.

“I don’t see why we’re bringing this up now,” Shea said. “It appears to be diverting our attention away from the budget crisis we have in this state.”

If the Legislature does approve the measure, Shea said he expects another referendum to take the issue to voters.

Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, said the church would be “looking for the Legislature to uphold the current legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.”

“The position of the Catholic Church is clear,” he said.

Murray said the Legislature can handle tackling gay marriage, closing a $1.5 billion budget shortfall and putting a tax package on the ballot in the same session.

Although he said he’s now a few votes short of passing same-sex-marriage legislation in the Senate, he’s confident of having at least some Republican votes for the bill.

“I can get Republican votes for marriage, but I can’t get a Republican vote for a tax increase,” he quipped.

“Suddenly, gay marriage becomes easier than raising taxes. I never thought I’d say that.”

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or