By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
The D.C. Council overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, in a vote that followed a sharp exchange between an openly gay member and a civil rights champion and set off shouts of reproach from local ministers.
The council passed the measure by a vote of 12 to 1. During the debate, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) accused Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who cast the dissenting vote, of having taken a "bigoted" position.
After the vote, enraged African American ministers stormed the hallway outside the council chambers and vowed that they will work to oust the members who supported the bill, which was sponsored by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). They caused such an uproar that security officers and D.C. police were called in to clear the hallway.
Yesterday's action could be a precursor to a debate later this year over whether to legalize same-sex marriage in the city. "There is no turning back," said Catania, who plans to introduce a broader gay marriage bill in a few months.
Barry, who said he supports gay rights and civil unions, warned after the vote that the District could erupt if the council does not proceed slowly on same-sex marriage.
"All hell is going to break lose," Barry said. "We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this."
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said he will sign the bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The council's action puts the matter before Congress, which under the Home Rule Charter has 30 days to review District legislation. The bill could present the House and Senate with their biggest test on the same-sex marriage issue since Congress approved the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
At least one GOP member said yesterday that he will try to block the bill from becoming law.
"Some things are worth fighting for, and this is one of them," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), the ranking Republican on a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that oversees the District. "It's not something I can let go softly into the night. . . . I recognize the Democrats are in the majority, but I represent the majority of Americans on this issue."
Several council members and gay rights advocates are hopeful that the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will be able to stop congressional intervention.
"I do not believe that a serious attempt to overturn the council bill will be made or will be successful," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who praised the council's decision.
But the emotional debate that took place yesterday at the Wilson Building suggests that the issue could be divisive in a city with a long history of racial tension in politics.
Barry, a prominent figure during the civil rights movement, said that he "agonized" over whether to oppose the bill but that he decided to stand with the "ministers who stand on the moral compass of God."
"I am representing my constituents," said Barry, who later told reporters that "98 percent of my constituents are black, and we don't have but a handful of openly gay residents."
Civic activist Philip Pannell, who is openly gay and lives in Ward 8, called Barry's remarks offensive. "He of all people, coming out of the civil rights movement, should understand the need to fight for the rights of all minorities to be protected," Pannell said.
Catania and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) are the two openly gay members of the council, and Catania made it clear that he took offense at Barry's stance.
"This issue is whether or not our colleagues, on a personal level, view me and Jim Graham as your equals," Catania said, "if we are permitted the same rights and responsibilities and obligations as our colleagues. So this is personal. This is acknowledging our families as much as we acknowledge yours."
Barry, visibly upset, fired back that he has been a supporter of gay rights since the 1970s.
"I understand this is personal to you and Mr. Graham. I understand because I have been discriminated against," Barry said. ". . . I resent Mr. Catania saying either you are a bigot or against bigotry, as though this particular legislation represents all of that."
Catania replied: "Your position is bigoted. I don't think you are."
The tenor of the debate was equally heated outside the council chamber.
"We need a new council. They are destroying our youth," a same-sex marriage opponent, Paul Trantham of Southeast Washington, shouted in the hallway during the ruckus. "Every minister who fears God should be here. This is disrespectful to the nation's capital. There is nothing equal about same-sex marriage."
This week, more than 100 black ministers signed a letter to Fenty opposing the measure.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) accused some of the black ministers of questioning her religious commitment and threatening to unseat council members who supported the bill. "The ministers have really upset me to a point they have questioned my Christianity, they have questioned my morality," Alexander said.
The Archdiocese of Washington issued a statement criticizing yesterday's vote as showing "a lack of understanding of the true meaning of marriage."
Outside the Wilson Building, Steven Gorman of Crestwood in Northwest Washington stood quietly holding a "marriage equality" sign. "I've been out for 25 years, and I've been battling for 25 years," said Gorman, who married his partner last summer in California. "This is not over, but we are winning."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Paul Kane contributed to this report.