Last week, the chief justice of the Washington State supreme court, Gerry Alexander, took the unusual step of setting a timetable for the court's highly anticipated (and politically explosive) decision on same-sex marriage. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Alexander said the court was aware of the public's eagerness for a ruling and hoped to decide the marriage case before early March, when this year's legislative session ends.

The comment immediately set off intense speculation: What did this rare public comment by the chief justice mean? Why would the court be pushing to decide before the end of the legislative session? Does the court's desire to do so signal a plan by the justices to declare the state's ban on gay unions unconstitutional and then direct the legislature to come up with an appropriate remedy before the session ends?

That last possibility is one that worries gay rights activists. Like their conservative opponents, they have been spending a lot of time these days thinking about possible decision scenarios and plotting their best political moves given various hypothetical outcomes. And the trickiest outcome is the one in which the Democrat-controlled legislature is told by the court to come up with a law recognizing gay unions. Would legislators have the courage to endorse full equality—semantic, cultural, and legal—by approving same-sex marriage? Or would they, in an election year, opt for the less politically perilous solution of civil unions? And if Democrats in the legislature seem split, in which direction should the gay community push them?

Representative Ed Murray (D-Seattle), the point-person on gay rights in Olympia, says he has a bill for marriage equality already written and plans to introduce it immediately if the court tells the legislature to offer state recognition for gay relationships. But given how long Republicans have succeeded in blocking a simple gay civil rights bill, which has been thwarted for almost 30 years running, Murray wonders if the gay rights community should have a plan B.

"If we find ourselves in a battle that ends up as long, or as close to as long, as the one that we've been in for basic civil rights, I think we as a community are going to have to discuss what our strategy is going forward," Murray says. "And I don't have an answer to that. Do we get caught in a situation, if it takes 5 or 10 years, where the good becomes the enemy of the perfect?"

The perfect, Murray and other leading gay rights advocates agree, is marriage. But the good, in a situation in which the legislature proves incapable of extending marriage to same-sex couples on any reasonable timescale, might be passing the more politically palatable civil unions option and thereby allowing gay couples to have state-sanctioned childcare, hospital visitation, inheritance, and other rights more quickly. In thinking about this option, Murray imagines an elderly gay couple and wonders: Wouldn't it be better for them to have more rights now, even under the rubric of civil unions, than for one or both of them to die while activists hold out for marriage?

The response from the marriage activists has traditionally been uncompromising and harsh when people ask such questions. In an October 2005 opinion piece in The Stranger, Evan Wolfson, director of the national marriage equality group Freedom to Marry, called on pro-marriage Washingtonians to "stiffen the spine of legislators" who might favor "half-measures or piecemeal responses that fall short of full inclusion and equality."

Marriage, Wolfson believes, is the only route to full civil equality for gays and lesbians in America. Massachusetts, which created the first legal gay marriages in the U.S. in 2004, is the example for Washington State to follow, Wolfson reasons—both for the sake of gay Washingtonians, and for the sake of all gay Americans, whose marriage rights could hinge on whether Washington becomes the second state in the country to allow same-sex marriage or breaks the momentum by going another route.

"All of this is going to be a many-year struggle," Wolfson said in a phone interview this week. "Which is why Washington should do the right thing and advance the struggle."

Offering compromises already, he says, "misunderstands how you end opposition. You don't end opposition by appeasing it, you end opposition by allowing fair-minded people to grow."

Murray agrees, for now: "I think in the next few years, we should fight for marriage. But I think if takes years, we should be going after it in pieces."