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.
The council approved the bill May 5, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) signed it the next day. If the bill survives a congressional review and its opponents fail to submit the required signatures before the end of the review period, likely to be in early July, the bill will immediately become law.
Bishop Harry Jackson, a leader in the petition effort, said he is confident that the required signatures can be gathered if the election board follows through on its pledge to move expeditiously.
Jackson said he has starting assembling hundreds of canvassers, who will be ready to hit the streets.
"We will have an army of signature collectors out in the community and into the churches to make it happen," said Jackson, the pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville. "We have every confidence we can make this happen."
Same-sex marriage supporters are skeptical that Jackson can collect the required signatures in such a short time. Even so, they hope to persuade the election board to scuttle the referendum.
"Those of us who favor marriage equality really do need to deliver the message, and ask our politicians to deliver the message, that civil rights or equal rights . . . should not be put up for referendum," said Peter Rosenstein, a longtime gay rights activist. "If we didn't have that, we probably would still have segregation today."
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who voted for the bill, said she supports putting the issue before voters.
"It needs to be brought to the people," Alexander said. She said she thinks District voters would support same-sex marriage.