D.C. Panel Hears Arguments on Same-Sex Marriage Referendum

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

The battle over same-sex marriage in the District moved to the city election board yesterday as supporters and opponents packed into a hearing room to debate whether the city should put the issue on the ballot.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which currently has two members and one vacancy, will determine whether voters should have a chance in a referendum to block a bill legalizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

The board heard four hours of testimony yesterday and is expected to make a decision Friday or early next week.

Both sides presented legal and political arguments about whether the same-sex marriage issue should be in the hands of voters or the politicians who represent them.

"All we are asking for is a public debate," said the Rev. Dale Wafer, a supporter of the referendum and a minister with the Harvest, a religious community in Northeast Washington. "We are not afraid of a debate. All we want is a public debate."

Philip E. Pannell, a longtime gay rights advocate and Democratic Party activist, accused referendum supporters of "advocating for a popular vote that will give vent to public homophobia."

"Unfortunately, in our society, it is still acceptable in many polite circles to vilify and victimize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," Pannell testified. "Hopefully, we in the District of Columbia will not have to be subjected to a campaign of misunderstanding, intolerance, fear, bigotry and hatred toward a minority group."

The battle over same-sex marriage pits a coalition of largely African American ministers against the city's politically active gay community.

In making its decision, the election board has to determine whether the proposed referendum would violate a District law that says a ballot initiative cannot violate the city's Human Rights Act.

The act, approved in 1977, prohibits discrimination against gays and lesbians as well as other minority groups.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who sponsored the bill to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, said the District would be treating gay and straight couples differently if the city recognized some out-of-state marriages but not others.

"What do we do with [same-sex] marriages performed in other states if we allow the referendum and it passes?" Mendelson asked. "A legitimate couple married in another state would be considered less when they came here, and that would be discriminatory."

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