D.C. Elections Board Says No to Allowing Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A ruling yesterday by D.C. elections officials suggests that only Congress or the courts can thwart the gathering momentum to legalize same-sex marriage in the District.

In a decision that reaffirms the rights of gays and lesbians under the city's civil rights law, the Board of Elections and Ethics blocked a proposal to let voters decide whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Unless a court intervenes, same-sex couples who marry in other states or countries will be considered legally married in the District as well in less than a month. And by the end of the year, the D.C. Council is expected to approve a bill to allow same-sex couples to be married in the city.

The opinion states that city officials would "authorize discrimination" if they were to permit a referendum on whether to afford same-sex couples married elsewhere the same rights as opposite-sex couples.

The two-member board cited District elections law, which prohibits a vote on a matter covered by the Human Rights Act. The 1977 act outlaws discrimination against gays and lesbians and other minority groups.

"The Referendum's proposers would, in contravention of the HRA, strip same-sex couples of the rights and responsibilities of marriage that they were afforded by virtue of entering into valid marriages elsewhere," the ruling states. "Because the Referendum would authorize discrimination prohibited by the HRA, it is not a proper subject for referendum, and may not be accepted by the Board."

Peter Rosenstein, a veteran gay rights activist, called it a "very strong opinion."

"I think this is a case where the human rights amendment protected the rights of individuals, and that is what it is supposed to do," Rosenstein said. "In the District, you don't put rights of a minority up to votes of a majority."

Bishop Harry Jackson, a same-sex-marriage opponent who is pushing for the vote, called the ruling an "insult." His attorneys said they plan to file an appeal today in Superior Court.

"The real human rights issue at stake in this decision is whether the people of D.C. will be given their right to vote," Jackson said. "We are not going to sit still for allowing an unelected board of bureaucrats to deny voters their rightful say on this issue and, by their action, allow the institution of marriage to be radically redefined."

If the court declines to intervene, the bill that the D.C. Council approved in May recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions will become law in early July, after the required congressional review period has ended.

It does not appear that Congress plans to intervene. Same-sex marriage remains illegal under federal law, and same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying in the District.

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