A Right to Have and to Hold
The D.C. Council takes a major step toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

Friday, October 9, 2009

BY INTRODUCING the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At-Large) has started the District's long-awaited effort to permit same-sex marriage. The bill is short on pages, but its impact on the lives of gays and lesbians, and on the advancement of civil rights generally, is immeasurable.

Think of this as part two of a considered strategy by Mr. Catania and the council. The first was passage of a law earlier this year that recognized same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. An effort to nullify the measure before it took effect in the spring failed when the Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that a referendum on the subject could not go on the ballot because it violated the District human rights law's prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation. A similar fate most likely awaits a proposed ballot initiative that would "provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized" in the District. As D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles wrote to the board this week, "asking voters to distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, which are legally indistinguishable in the jurisdictions where the marriages were performed, authorizes, or has the effect of authorizing, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation."

Ten of 13 council members, including Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, are sponsoring the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the District. The legislation would honor the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom by stating that no member of the clergy or official of a nonprofit religious group would be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her religious beliefs. The District's domestic partnership registry would sunset on Jan. 1, 2011. Those who are currently domestic partners would be able to apply for and receive a marriage license free of charge.

A public hearing will be held on Oct. 26. A vote of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary is expected next month, with a full vote of the council possible by mid-December. Then, as with all District laws, Congress has to review the same-sex marriage statute. If we're to believe the Capitol Hill chatter, Congress is unlikely to thwart its implementation. We hope that proves true. Same-sex marriage is legal in four states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont. New Hampshire's law goes into effect Jan. 10. If the District's elected representatives want it to join their ranks, as it should, Congress should not interfere.

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