By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is plunging the Catholic Church deeper into the battle over legalizing same-sex marriage in the District, a tactic that could complicate the D.C. Council's efforts to quickly take up the matter this fall.
Wuerl sent a letter to 300 local Catholic priests Tuesday reminding them about the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage, and he launched a round of media interviews to bolster the church's presence in the debate.
In his efforts to mobilize Catholics, Wuerl joins a group of Baptist, predominantly African American preachers in stepping up the pressure on D.C. officials to allow a public vote on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized.
"We will continue to let the voice of the Church, the teachings of the Church, be heard as clearly as it can be heard," Wuerl said. "That is why we have sent out so much material to our priests to help them explain this to our faithful people."
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who plans to introduce a bill this fall legalizing gay marriage in the District, said he will not be deterred by the Catholic Church's increased involvement.
"We have a long tradition in this city of evolving toward equality and a better, more expansive view of human rights, and in 2009 this includes marriage equality for same-sex couples," said Catania, who is gay. "I respect the bishop for his view . . . but we live in a representative democracy where there is a separation of church and state. We do not live in a theocracy."
Wuerl launched the media offensive on the same day that eight opponents of same-sex marriage, including Bishop Harry Jackson, filed a request with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to hold a initiative next year defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.
The proposed initiative says, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in the District of Columbia."
But the elections board must first rule on whether the initiative request is valid. In the District, a referendum cannot be held on a matter that violates the city's Human Rights Act. In addition to other minority groups, the act protects gays and lesbians from discrimination.
In June, the board blocked an effort by Jackson to hold an initiative to reverse a council bill allowing the District to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The two-member board cited the Human Rights Act in its decision.
"It is ironic that at the same time the city is asking for voting representation in the U.S. Congress, its leaders are denying residents the opportunity to participate in the democratic process for an issue with widespread implications for children and families," said Ronald Jackson, executive director of the D.C. Catholic Conference, who noted that 580,000 Catholics live in the District and suburban Maryland, the areas that make up the archdiocese.
Wuerl, who became archbishop in 2006, has largely steered clear of controversial political and cultural battles in the region. But in his letter to the priests, Wuerl writes that "marriage is a path toward holiness . . . so as members of the church we are obliged to be all the more attentive to the challenges that weaken marriage."
Wuerl, former bishop of the diocese of Pittsburgh, added that the Church is "committed to develop opportunities for parishioners to be involved to ensure that the true definition of marriage is upheld in the District of Columbia."
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a supporter of same-sex marriage, sought to play down the significance of Wuerl's call for an initiative to decide the matter.
"We already know what the law says about a referendum on civil rights issues," Mendelson said. "The position of the Catholic Church has been known, so I don't think it is anything new."
But Wuerl and Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, could take their case to a broader national audience if the council rushes through a same-sex marriage bill without allowing the public to vote on it.
Under Home Rule, Congress can overrule a bill approved by the council. Although Congress did not intervene in the council's decision to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, some activists worry that it could take a more active role if the city seeks to allow such marriages to be performed in the nation's capital.
"This is not a local issue," said Wuerl, noting that other states are debating the issue. "People always look at the District of Columbia through a magnifying glass, and we need to be aware of that."
Jackson, who recently registered to vote in the District but maintains a house in Maryland, posted a YouTube video Monday in which he says, "We need people to come and talk to their congressmen and tell them that D.C. is the nation's capital . . . [and] what happens in D.C. doesn't stay in D.C."