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Updated Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 07:01 PM

Gender-neutral certificates will be late to wedding rush

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

The first wave of same-sex couples to seek marriage licenses in Washington beginning Dec. 6 will likely walk away with marriage certificates identifying them as bride and groom — despite a push by county and state officials to have gender-appropriate documents ready in time.

That's because the final step in a process by the state Department of Health to make certificates gender neutral won't occur until Dec. 6, the day the new marriage law takes effect.

And many counties, like King, will need several more days, or even weeks, to reprogram computer systems to generate these new certificates, the proposed language for which would refer to Spouse A and Spouse B instead of bride and groom.

Marriage certificates serve an often-overlooked but important role for couples. They are issued when couples apply for and obtain their marriage licenses and must be signed by the person officiating at a wedding ceremony.

Eventually, certificates are put on file with the Health Department.

A certified copy is often required for official transactions that require proof of marriage, like name changes.

Same-sex marriage will become legal a month after voters approved Referendum 74 on Nov. 6.

As the only place in King County where licenses will be issued the first three days, the King County Recorder's Office will open at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 6 and remain open for 18 ½ straight hours that day.

Over three days, officials expect to issue as many as 2,000 marriage licenses, based on the experiences they've seen in other states. The first day couples can legally wed is Dec. 9 — and many plan to do so.

"It puts us in a bind," said Cameron Satterfield, spokesman for the Recorder's Office.

"We are expecting hundreds of couples to apply, but we'll probably be issuing them something that says bride and groom," Satterfield said.

State Health Department Tim Church said his department is working to have a form counties can use Dec 6.

To change language on the certificate form, the department is going through a process known as rule-making, which must follow a strict timeline.

A public hearing, which is part of that, was held Wednesday in Olympia. Under this timeline, the final rule, or change, won't be filed until Dec. 6.

"The initiative (Ref. 74) gave us a short time to turn this around," Church said.

The counties and the Health Department began planning for these changes as soon as the Legislature passed the same-sex marriage law earlier this year, coming up with a draft certificate that reflects the gender-neutral language.

But their planning was put on hold when Ref. 74 qualified for the ballot, which in turn put the law on hold.

"We're doing the best we can," Church said.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, president of the Washington State Association of County Auditors, said the timeline means most counties won't have the new certificates in their system and ready to be issued for several days — possibly even weeks — after the law goes into effect.

In fact, even after the state transmits the new certificate to counties electronically, it will take time for them to reprogram their systems to generate new forms.

"County auditors simply won't have functional forms by the time they start issuing marriage certificates," Dalton said. "We'll have to run on the old form.

"But no matter what happens on Dec. 6, or what the language is, couples will get the paperwork needed to get married. And that's what's important."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

County turns to Facebook

Wedding rush: Planning to obtain a marriage license in the first three days the gay-marriage law takes effect?

To gauge how many applicants might show up during the first three days that same-sex marriage is legal, King County is inviting couples to register their intention on Facebook: www.facebook.com/KingCountyWA.


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