The state Senate passed legislation Wednesday night that would legalize gay marriage. The bill now goes to the House, where it's expected to pass easily.

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OLYMPIA — In the end, it wasn’t even close.

After more than a decade of laying the ground work and fretting that the votes would be just out of reach, state Sen. Ed Murray watched Wednesday night as the Senate easily passed legislation that would legalize gay marriage.

The vote was 28-21.

“For a lot of people in my age group, this is a stunning event,” said Murray, the prime sponsor of the bill. “It’s something we did not believe would happen in our lifetime.”

While it wasn’t final passage, the Senate always has been viewed as the biggest hurdle for same-sex marriage legislation, as it was for gay-rights bills in previous years.

The measure now heads to the House, where supporters say they have more than enough votes. It’s expected to pass as early as next week. The governor strongly supports the bill as well.

Washington would become the seventh state to legalize gay marriage, depending on the outcome of a threatened referendum challenge by gay-marriage opponents.

Little sign of nervousness was apparent in the hours leading up to the Senate floor action.

Murray, a Seattle Democrat, and his longtime partner, Michael Shiosaki, actually held a celebratory news conference before the Senate went into session.

Gay-marriage supporters packed the Senate galleries, and they burst into applause when the vote tally was announced.

“It’s exciting to be here and see the civil-rights movement move forward,” said Kevin Moser, 31, a Seattle man who was there with his partner, Bret Tiderman.

“It means that one day our parents will be really excited to go to a wedding,” Tiderman said.

Jane Sterland, 56, of Centralia, was one of the few gay-marriage opponents on hand to witness the vote.

“I’m a Christian, and this is not pleasing to God,” she said. “I feel very grieved that the bill is even in question.”

In addition to the 26 lawmakers who previously had announced support for the Senate measure, two more Republicans, Sens. Andy Hill of Redmond and Joe Fain of Auburn, voted for it as well. Republicans Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Cheryl Pflug of Maple Valley had pledged support earlier.

Overall, 24 Democrats and four Republicans voted for the bill.

Conservative Democrats Tim Shelton of Potlach, Paull Shin of Edmonds and Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam opposed the measure, along with 18 Republicans.

The floor debate was tame compared to the overheated rhetoric that sometimes characterized gay-rights debates in the past.

Both sides were civil, making brief arguments for their views.

“We ask for your support tonight not simply because marriage is a series of legal protections,” Murray said on the floor. “We ask for your support tonight because marriage is how society says you are a family. Marriage is the way a community knows that a couple loves each other.”

Nearly a dozen amendments were introduced, including several that passed which strengthen legal protections for religious groups and organizations. A handful were rejected, including one that would shield from discrimination claims photographers, cake decorators and other business owners who refuse to provide services for gay-marriage ceremonies.

The bill also contains a provision that says churches do not have to marry gay couples unless they want to.

Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, argued that the proposed law alters the definition of marriage and “will lead to the silencing of those who believe in traditional marriage.”

“It’s ironic how a bill which purports to be about ending discrimination leaves the door open so far for discrimination going in the other direction,”‘ Swecker said.

An amendment to put the measure on the November ballot, sponsored by Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, also was defeated, by a 26-23 vote.

Hatfield, who ended up voting for the bill anyway, said a decision this big should be decided by voters.

“What’s the problem? Let’s trust the people of this state … and let the voters have their say,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, argued the measure is a civil-rights bill and that putting it on the ballot would subject the rights of minorities “to the whims of the majority.”

Gay-marriage opponents have promised to challenge any same-sex marriage law at the ballot. A referendum cannot be filed before the governor signs the legislation.

Under state law, opponents have 90 days from the end of the session to collect 120,577 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. The regular session ends March 8.

If opponents aren’t able to collect enough signatures, gay and lesbian couples would be able to be wed starting in June. Otherwise, they would have to wait until the results of a November election.

While the gay-marriage bill passed easily Wednesday, the vote wasn’t so certain last month. Many senators were sitting on the fence, and gay-marriage supporters worried they would not have enough votes.

The state Senate, with its mix of conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats, always has been uncertain territory for any measure dealing with the rights of gays and lesbians.

In 2005, a gay-rights bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate. The landmark legislation won narrow approval a year later only after a Republican senator switched sides.

Murray represented the 43rd District in the state House then. At the time, he said the legislation “is one of those rare things that probably only happens once in your life.”

Yet, he was back the following year, along with Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, in the House, to push through a series of additional bills dealing with gay rights. That work culminated with the “everything but marriage” law that voters upheld through Referendum 71 in 2009.

In the end, all that was left was the word “marriage.”

It was an intentional, incremental approach to pave the way, and build support for legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.

It appears to have worked.

Not only does the bill seem to have broader legislative support than key gay-rights legislation that preceded it, but corporations are tripping over themselves to announce their backing. A number of prominent Pacific Northwest companies, including Microsoft, Starbucks, Nike, Vulcan and Amazon, have endorsed the measure.

Senate Bill 6239 defines marriage as between two persons, rather than between a male and a female.

It also would allow couples from other states with valid civil unions or domestic partnerships — but not marriages — to marry here.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

Seattle Times staff reporter Stephanie Kim contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press and The Seattle Times archives also is included.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266