The D.C. elections board blocked an effort today to hold a referendum on whether the District should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, handing gay rights advocates a major victory.
The decision by Board of Elections and Ethics removes one of the last remaining hurdles to the legislation that the D.C. Council approved in May.
The bill is slated to become law in early July after the required congressional review period has ended. It does not appear as if the Democratic-controlled Congress plans to intervene.
Earlier this month, the Bishop Harry Jackson led a group of predominately African-American ministers in seeking to put the issue before voters. They accused the city Council of enacting the legislation with little input from the public.
But the elections board sided with city officials and gay rights advocates, who argued a referendum would violate the law.
Under District elections law, a referendum cannot appear on the ballot if it violates the city's Human Rights Act. The act, approved in 1977, prohibits discrimination against gays and lesbians and other minority groups.
"To the extent that the proposed referendum would suspend the Council's action to recognize lawful foreign same-sex marriages on the same terms as lawful foreign heterosexual marriages, the proposed measure would run counter to the letter and spirit of the" Human Rights Act, Attorney General Peter Nickles argued to the elections board in written testimony last week.
In its ruling, the elections board also cited the Human Rights Act. "Because the referendum would authorize discrimination prohibited by the HRA, it is not a proper subject for referendum, and may not be accepted by the Board," the ruling states.
Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, had threatened to go to court if the board ruled against him.
Even if he were to succeed in court, Jackson is running out of the time to gather the 21,000 signatures that would be needed to put the issue on the ballot before the bill becomes law.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At large) said he plans to introduce a separate proposal later this that would allow same-sex marriages to be performed in the District. At the gay pride parade on Saturday, Catania was handing out "marriage equality now" signs.
That proposal could trigger another battle over whether voters should have a say. Today's ruling applies only to the bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The board's opinion, however, suggests that opponents will have to develop new arguments as to why same-sex marriage should not be considered as a civil right protected under the Human Rights Act.