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.
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."
After the council approved a bill in May legalizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, members of Congress from both parties largely steered clear of the issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was quoted as saying at the time that the District should be treated like a state.
But Congress intruded in another local matter when it attached an anti-gun control amendment to federal legislation that would give the city a full vote in the House.
Same-sex marriages are performed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont. They will be legal in New Hampshire in January. The Maine legislature has approved same-sex marriage, but a referendum will be held on the measure in November.
Locally, Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, and several other African American ministers asked the Board of Elections and Ethics to authorize a ballot initiative defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. The Archdiocese of Washington is supporting the effort, but the city code prohibits a referendum on an issue covered by the Human Rights Act. The law protects gays and other minority groups from discrimination.
Gary R. Imhoff, a community activist from Columbia Heights, said the council could face a rebellion at the polls unless it authorizes a public vote. "There will definitely be a backlash because people will say: 'You didn't listen to us. You didn't even ask us, and you blocked our opportunity to vote,' " Imhoff said.
But the city's politically active gay community has spent decades working to elect like-minded officials, and there appears to be little appetite on the council for putting the issue on the ballot.
Rosenstein said he's not surprised that there are 10 co-sponsors, noting that the gay community has been preparing for this fight for years.
"Many of us in the community have made it known that part of the reason we have supported [council members] in the past is they have publicly supported marriage equality," Rosenstein said. "It's a question we have been asking them for many years."
The list of co-sponsors includes D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and all four-at large council members -- Catania, Kwame R. Brown (D), Michael A. Brown (I) and Phil Mendelson (D). Democratic members Jack Evans (Ward 2), Jim Graham (Ward 1), Tommy Wells (Ward 6) , Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and Mary Cheh (Ward 3) also support the bill. And Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) backs same-sex marriage.
The three Democratic members who have not committed to supporting the bill -- Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5), Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7) and Marion Barry (Ward 8) -- represent sections that have higher percentages of African American residents.
Catania said he is optimistic, however, that the final vote for his bill could be unanimous. Barry, for example, was the only council member this spring to vote against the new law allowing the District to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
In an interview Thursday, Barry said he is keeping an open mind on Catania's bill. "Let him introduce his bill, and we'll see," Barry said.
Mendelson, chairman of the Public Safety and the Judiciary Committee, said he will probably hold a hearing on Catania's bill next month so the public can testify. Although Mendelson said he believes that a majority of members "have clearly stated their opinions" on the issue, he said the "details will be important."
"I will look in particular at protecting religious freedoms for churches to be able to say yes or no to celebrating marriages consistent with their faith," Mendelson said.
Catania said he is buoyed by the fact that he has a super-majority standing with him.
"For me, I have to be honest, it's a particularly satisfying point in time to have a community and the council that is so committed to marriage equality," Catania said in an interview Thursday. "The debate is almost over here. The acceptance, while not universal, is substantial."