Quick Review Is Promised by D.C. Council on Marriage Referendum Issue

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

City election officials said yesterday that they will expedite their review of a request for a referendum to block a D.C. Council bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, as opponents vowed to fight to keep it off the ballot.

After filing paperwork Wednesday to hold a citywide referendum on the question, a coalition of religious leaders and other same-sex marriage opponents is facing a July deadline to collect about 21,000 signatures to force a special election this year. Before they can collect the signatures, however, the city election board has to rule on whether District voters have the right to weigh in on the issue.

Kenneth McGhie, general counsel to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said the board has scheduled a special hearing June 10 to take up the matter.

McGhie said that if board members decide that a referendum is appropriate, supporters of a ballot proposal "are going to get their petitions right away and have two or three weeks to work with to try to get signatures."

"The clock is ticking," McGhie said, "so the board wants to be able to resolve the issue."

At the heart of the debate is whether same-sex marriage is a civil right that should be protected from the will of the electorate. Under District election law, the city cannot hold a referendum on a proposal that would violate the District's Human Rights Act. Supporters of same-sex marriage say the act protects gay men and lesbians from discrimination.

Both sides are preparing arguments for the June meeting, highlighting the emotion and tension that surrounds the same-sex marriage debate.

"The civil rights of a minority should never be put up for popular vote. Period," said Michael Crawford, executive director of DC for Marriage, an organization fighting for same-sex marriage. "Just as we never voted on whether African Americans should be treated equally or whether women should have the right to vote, we should not vote on whether gays and lesbians should be treated equally."

Crawford is black, but his characterization of same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue generated a heated response from Kathryn Pearson-West, an African American community activist who lives in Ward 5.

"I really get offended when I hear it, because when you are talking about civil rights, you are talking about African Americans, and civil rights are not the same as same-sex marriage," said Pearson-West, a supporter of the referendum. "This is changing the whole system of marriage, which is one man and one woman, and the citizens deserve to have a say on that."

If the board allows the issue to go before voters, opponents will have to collect signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in at least five of eight wards to get the question on the ballot. The group would have until early July to collect the signatures, not 180 days as was previously reported.

City officials said it would take an extraordinary effort to collect that many valid signatures in such a short time. Although 21,000 signatures would be needed, officials recommend submitting twice as many to make sure there are enough valid ones.

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