Council At Odds Over Marriage License Tests

By Nikita Stewart and Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 29, 2008

What started out as a proposal to require people applying for marriage licenses to be tested for HIV has turned into a proposal to throw out that idea, abolish a current test for syphilis and end an archaic rule that prohibited "lunatics" and "idiots" from marrying.

The Safe Marriage Amendment Act was proposed in December by council members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5). Council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) were co-sponsors.

Under the proposed legislation, the city would add a test for HIV-AIDS to the already required syphilis test.

The bill also encourages potential brides and grooms to get premarital counseling. Those who get counseling would pay $35 for a license instead of $65. It sounded good: knowing that your potential life partner does not have a disease and agrees to get counseling on how to be a good spouse.

But then came the small issues of privacy and liberty.

It turns out that nearly every state in the country has thrown out such rules. Although there are some states that encourage premarital education, there are only two states checking blood: Montana for rubella and Mississippi for syphilis.

The D.C. bill has been making its way through the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, headed by Mendelson, who is now recommending abandoning the HIV and syphilis tests.

He also introduced an amendment to repeal a section of the law that prohibits "marriage of an idiot or of a person adjudged to be a lunatic."

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he thought such language had already been removed by legislation he had sponsored earlier. "The language was incredibly offensive," Gray said.

On Tuesday, the Committee of the Whole accepted the public safety committee's report with the recommendations.

But Alexander said she stands behind the original bill. "Accepting the report is not necessarily accepting those amendments," she said.

An HIV-AIDS test could save lives, she said. "You may still marry that person," she said. "I think it is for both of you to take. . . . Especially with the epidemic in the District, we would set a precedent."

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