Mayor Greg Nickels can't issue marriage licenses in the city — that authority rests with the county — so he has decided to do what he calls "the next best thing."
On Sunday, he told The Associated Press he plans to sign an executive order Monday requiring the city to recognize the marriages of gay employees who get their licenses elsewhere.
With Nickels action, Seattle became the latest flashpoint in the national debate over gay marriage — an argument that has moved from a Massachusetts courthouse to San Francisco's city hall and elsewhere.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last month decided to allow gay marriage, generating lawsuits from opponents and calls for a constitutional amendment to ban gay weddings. President Bush has called for such a ban.
More than 3,600 same-sex marriages have been performed in San Francisco over the last three weeks, and hundreds of gay couples were granted wedding licenses last week in Portland, Oregon. The marriages are being challenged in court.
Nearly 40 gay couples have received marriage certificates in New Paltz, N.Y., where Mayor Jason West has been charged with solemnizing marriages without a license, a misdemeanor. A judge has temporarily barred him from marrying any more same-sex couples.
Downstate, an openly gay New York City councilwoman is urging the city's mayor to muster enough courage to act on his own convictions. Councilwoman Christine Quinn says Mayor Michael Bloomberg should show some leadership and immediately start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
During a TV interview on Sunday, Bloomberg said he "always thought that civil unions should have exactly the same rights as marriage." But he added he goes "back-and-forth" on whether same-sex marriages should be allowed.
Bloomberg told New York's WPIX-TV he will continue to enforce New York state's ban on gay marriage.
Bloomberg marched along with Mayor West in Sunday's Queens St. Patrick's Day parade, an alternative to the older Manhattan parade, which bans gay groups.
In Seattle, Nickels also said he'll ask the City Council to protect gay married couples throughout the city from discrimination in employment, housing or the use of parks or other city facilities. If the council approves the ordinance, it also would require contractors doing business with the city to recognize gay marriages among their own employees.
"The basic message is one of fairness, and that is that people who are willing to make a commitment to one another, who love one another, and who are willing to take on the responsibilities of marriage ought to be able to, regardless of their gender," Nickels told the AP.
Rick Forcier, head of the state Christian Coalition and a critic of extending marriage licenses to gay couples, called Nickels' plan a clear violation of state law.
"What he's about to do is anarchy — taking the law into his own hands," Forcier said. "People cannot be recognized as married in one jurisdiction and not in another."
Meanwhile, six gay couples from the area planned to sue on Monday for the right to marry, arguing that a state law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman violates the Washington state Constitution, said Jamie Pedersen, who planned to file the lawsuit.
Pedersen, co-chairman of Lamda Legal, a national gay-rights group, praised Nickels, saying, "I'm very happy that the mayor has been thinking creatively about what he could do to express concrete, tangible support for the many gay and lesbian couples who live in Seattle."
Nickels supports gay marriage but has said he lacks the legal authority to issue same-sex marriage licenses or certificates like mayors in San Francisco and New Paltz, New York, have done.
Ron Sims, the executive of surrounding King County, favors gay marriage but has said he won't buck the state law.
Sims' spokeswoman Elaine Kraft said the executive had no comment on Nickels' announcement Sunday.
Washington state lawmakers passed a "Defense of Marriage Act" in 1998, making the state one of 38 defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Gov. Gary Locke vetoed the law, but lawmakers overrode the veto.
Seattle has offered domestic partnership benefits to its employees since 1989, but that process requires workers to fill out extensive paperwork — a step same-sex couples will be able to skip under the executive order Nickels was to sign Monday.
The proposed ordinance Nickels said he would send to the City Council on Monday defines "spouse" as a husband or wife in a same-sex or opposite-sex marriage.
Nickels said he's hopeful the council will pass the ordinance.
"Seattle, I believe, has always been a very tolerant city, one that believes in basic fairness and defending the rights of people," Nickels said, "and I think there will be strong support for this action."
The ordinance Nickels proposed would let gay and lesbian spouses inherit any business licenses of a partner who dies. It also would change the definition of malicious harassment to protect people in same-sex marriages.
Many longtime opponents of the gay-rights movement are welcoming the furor over same-sex marriage as a chance to expand the audience for their unfavorable views of homosexuality.
Activists in this camp — clergy, conservative lobbyists, men and women who say they moved away from homosexuality through prayer or therapy — have been dismayed by gay-rights advances in recent years. But they see new opportunities for their cause.
"People are taking us more seriously," said Joseph Nicolosi, a leading proponent of the contested concept that homosexuality is a disorder treatable by therapy.