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Both sides mobilize on same-sex marriage
Rally by opponents precedes election board, D.C. Council hearings

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

A small but noisy group of protesters, many bused in from churches, rallied Sunday in downtown Washington to demand that the D.C. Council reject a measure that would allow same-sex marriages in the District.

"No one has the right to pass laws without checking with the taxpaying citizens of the District of Columbia," said Howard Butler of Holy Temple Church of God in Southeast Washington. He was among about 150 opponents of same-sex marriage in Freedom Plaza, across from the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the mayor's and council members' offices.

After months of strategizing, the debate over whether the District should legalize same-sex marriage is entering its final stages as a council committee takes up the issue Monday. Hundreds have signed up to testify, setting the stage for one of the largest council hearings ever, officials said. Another hearing Monday is scheduled before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which must decide whether to allow a ballot initiative on whether marriage in the District should be restricted to unions involving one man and one woman.

Sunday's protesters chanted, "Let the people vote!" but many participants live in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. "What happens in D.C. will ultimately affect the states around it," said Dana Sanders, a Columbia resident.

To get an initiative on the ballot, its supporters must convince the elections board that their proposal would not discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Most legal observers expect the board will deny the request. This summer, the board rejected a referendum proposal to block the city from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The D.C. Council is widely expected to approve a same-sex marriage bill before Christmas. On Monday evening, the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary will begin hearing testimony from 269 people who have signed up to speak.

"The folks who argue for an initiative say they want to have a public debate, and that is what this hearing is," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the committee.

Some of the testimony will center on whether the bill, which is sponsored by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), goes far enough in exempting religious groups and affiliated organizations from having to participate in same-sex weddings.

Under the draft before the committee, churches and religious officials would not have to marry same-sex couples. Religious organizations could also deny reception space and other services to same-sex couples "unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available for purchase, rental, or use to members of the general public."

But five law professors and Marc D. Stern, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, sent a letter to council members Friday asking that religious organizations be given more latitude to deny services for same-sex weddings.

The group wants the bill to say that "a religious organization, association or society, or an individual" can deny "services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges" for same-sex marriages without fear of running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, said that without such protection, religious organizations and nonprofit groups could leave the city. Catholic Charities of Boston, she said, stopped adoption services in 2006 after Massachusetts tried to force it to comply with a law allowing gay residents to adopt children.

Richard J. Rosendall, a vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., said he will vigorously oppose efforts to make it easier for religious organizations to deny services. Rosendall said he agrees that churches should not be forced to offer religious ceremonies to same-sex couples. But he said gay men and lesbians should be entitled to all services available to the rest of the public.

If religious groups "are getting involved in a for-profit function, it would be outrageous for them to get some kind of exception," he said.

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