A same-sex marriage bill has been passed by the Washington state Senate, paving the way for same-sex marriage to be legalised in that state.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 28 for and 21 against the measure after an hour and half of debate.

The bill was passed to the sound of applause and cheers from the public galleries.

While the majority of the votes for the bill were from Democrats, three voted against it while four Republicans voted in favour of the measure.

The bill, however, allows religious institutions to refuse to offer services or their facilities to same-sex couples wishing to get married.

The legislation must next be approved by the House, where it is also expected to be passed.

Governor Chris Gregoire has said that she supports the bill and will sign it.

If the bill comes into law, it will make Washington the seventh state in America to legalise same-sex marriage after New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Opponents of same-sex marriage rights in Washington say that if the bill is passed they will focus their efforts on forcing a state referendum on the issue.

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