Editor's note: The following is an Associated Press analysis of the recent Washington Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
OLYMPIA—The state Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage wasn't the bombshell that both sides predicted — full marriage equality — and it did little to settle whether gays and lesbians can marry or join in "civil unions."
Next stop: the Legislature — and possibly the ballot box.
The high court dismissed constitutional challenges to the Legislature's 1998 gay-marriage ban, but invited lawmakers to reopen the debate.
It's an issue Olympia doesn't much want to deal with.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said top Democratic leaders in the Legislature told her privately that they don't have votes to move forward, backward or sideways.
But that won't stop the touchy issue from flaring up as campaign fodder and in the upcoming legislative session — albeit at a much lower decibel than if the justices had authorized gay unions, as the conventional wisdom incorrectly predicted.
Don't look for anything in a hurry.
Even professional optimists like Rep. Ed Murray say it looks like a very long haul for full marriage equality, probably not until public opinion shifts significantly. An anti-discrimination bill took 30 years to pass, he notes.
"It won't happen quickly and it won't happen easily," says Murray, D-Seattle, the senior of four gay men in the Legislature.
Even a civil union law seems like heavy lifting and may take years.
The high court, in an avalanche of words that sprawled over 207 pages of sometimes superheated verbiage, was unanimous in saying the court system is not the proper branch of government for changing the definition of marriage.
In a sweeping display of deference to the Legislature, justices on both sides of the marriage question said that's a matter for elected lawmakers, and that the high court won't legislate from the bench. Even the four justices who wanted to overturn the ban wrote that they would "leave remedying the marriage statutes to the Legislature."
Liberal former Justice Phil Talmadge said his former colleagues "punted to the Legislature, that's the bottom line." Conservatives were delighted with both the court's 5-4 opinion and its bright line against judicial activism.
Despite a reputation for using wedge issues, particularly on the campaign trail, the Legislature doesn't like controversy, particularly social issues that are dicey. Legislators like to chew on big poll-tested concerns like education, health care and transportation, not on abortion or gay rights or drug policy.
Campaigns, particularly in the swing districts that Democrats see as their victory gardens, use safe, predictable cookie-cutter issues.
But the court has tossed the issue right into lawmakers' laps — albeit not the firebomb it would have been if the justices had thrown out the ban and directed the Legislature to devise a new regime.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and the top leaders, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, dealt gingerly even with the court's status-quo decision.
Gregoire spoke passionately about the need for love and equality, tearing up when she talked about "Ma," the single mom who reared her without the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family. Usually direct and clear, she equivocated, though, refusing to even use the phrase "civil unions" and said marriage in her mind is something for people and their clergy to deal with, not the government. She talked about her love of traditional marriage and her Catholic faith.
What about licenses and civil weddings at the courthouse? She wouldn't answer, perhaps struggling with finding a middle ground that would satisfy both Rome and Capitol Hill.
Chopp, who represents the district with the heaviest concentration of gays but is cautious in leading a diverse caucus, issued a terse statement saying he planned to read the opinion and confer with his colleagues.
Brown noted that society is grappling with the issue and added, "Just as the public is divided over the issue, so is the Legislature." Majority Democrats have no unified position, she said.
Expect the full range of options to be explored, she and the governor told reporters.
"There may very well be calls for full marriage equality for same-sex couples, as in Massachusetts, for civil unions, as in Vermont, or for a constitutional amendment banning both, as in Utah," Brown said. "All of the options will be explored and no doubt debated in the next legislative session."
Leaders said there aren't enough votes to change the status quo.
"We will begin the conversation," Murray said.
Talmadge and constitutional law professor Hugh Spitzer said the main push will be for civil unions that allow gay couples to have the same array of rights and responsibilities, such as inheritance, benefits and medical decisions, that heterosexuals have.
Murray and others figure that full marriage equality is too big of a stretch for lawmakers, and also presume that Democratic majorities could block a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The latter takes a two-thirds vote in both chambers, plus voter approval.
Republicans haven't signaled whether they'll let the issue drop or pursue the constitutional amendment. House and Senate leaders said the court has firmly upheld the ban, which they said tracks with the public's wishes.
And the issue could wind up on the ballot — as a referendum or initiative reacting to something the Legislature does or something citizen groups propose.
— The Associated Press