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D.C. Council Passage of Gay Marriage Bill All but Assured

David A. Catania, left, drafted the bill. The 10 co-sponsors include Tommy Wells, right. Marion Barry, second from right, has not committed to it.
David A. Catania, left, drafted the bill. The 10 co-sponsors include Tommy Wells, right. Marion Barry, second from right, has not committed to it. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

The District is poised once again to become the battleground for a divisive social issue as the D.C. Council moves a step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage, an action that could force Congress and White House to take sides in the debate.

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After months of buildup and behind-the-scenes lobbying, a bill by David A. Catania, one of two openly gay members of the council, has been drafted and is ready to be introduced in the coming weeks. Catania (I-At Large) expects a final vote before the end of the year. On Thursday, Catania said he had 10 co-sponsors, all but assuring that the measure will be approved by the council. The bill would have to survive congressional review before it could become law.

The bill, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, would change the law to say that "marriage is the legally recognized union of two people" and that "any person who otherwise meets the eligibility requirements . . . may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender."

If Congress fails to intervene, the District will become the only jurisdiction south of the Mason-Dixon line where same-sex couples can marry. Gays and lesbians from across the country would probably flock to the city to take their vows, as they did in California before voters passed a referendum banning same-sex marriages. Gay rights activists in Maryland said the sight of gay couples getting married in the District would boost the chance that the General Assembly would approve a gay marriage bill within a few years.

There are signs that the bill will probably generate heated opposition from members of the city's religious community, and some are concerned that the issue could split the city along racial lines. It is also sparking a debate about whether voters, as opposed to council members, should have the final say over the issue.

Catania's bill, titled the "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009," stresses that no religious organizations or their officials would have to perform a same-sex marriage or provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples.

"I think it is very important for people to realize we are talking about a civil marriage, not a religious marriage," Catania said.

Starting in 2011, the bill would eliminate domestic partnerships, although any couple already registered would have the option of keeping their partnership or converting it for free to a city-sanctioned marriage.

There is little doubt that the measure will be approved by the council, but that won't stop national activists opposed to same-sex marriage from trying to stop the legislation in Congress.

Tom McClusky, a vice president for legislative strategy at the Family Research Council, said that "a number of legislators are looking at different things" in preparation for the fight moving to Capitol Hill.

"This is one of those cases where D.C. residents are asking them to get involved," McClusky said. "On most other issues, it does look like Congress is interfering, using D.C. as some lab, but in this case it's something D.C. residents have asked for. People have gone to various D.C. Council meetings in support of one-man-one-woman marriage, and they feel like they are being ignored."

Peter Rosenstein, a longtime gay rights activist, said he and other advocates are banking on Democrats in Congress to fend off the opposition. "Our hope is a Democratic Congress will be able to keep any bills or actions off the floor," Rosenstein said. "Do we have a guarantee? No. But we are fairly confident at this point."


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