D.C. board turns away ballot initiative on marriage

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled Tuesday that a proposed ballot initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman cannot go forward, reaffirming an earlier ruling that such a vote would be discriminatory.

The board cited the city Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination against gay men and lesbians. The board decision, which will probably be challenged in court, means the D.C. Council can move forward with its plans to vote on a bill next month to legalize same-sex marriage. The council on Tuesday scheduled a vote for Dec. 1.

"We have considered all of the testimony presented to the board and understand the desire to place this question on the ballot," said board Chairman Errol R. Arthur. "However, the laws of the District of Columbia preclude us from allowing this initiative to move forward."

Bishop Harry Jackson, who is leading the effort to get a public vote on the issue, called the ruling "outrageous and a slap in the face of every resident of the District of Columbia."

"To deny the people their fundamental right to vote on such an important issue as the definition of marriage in our society is simply appalling," said Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville.

The ruling, which comes less than two weeks after voters in Maine overturned that state's same-sex marriage law, sets the District apart from many other jurisdictions in the national debate over same-sex marriage.

Voters in 31 states have rejected same-sex marriage. But the D.C. code states that a public vote cannot be held on a matter that would lead to discrimination against a minority group.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, said the board ruling shows that the city's Human Rights Act is "one of the most comprehensive statements on equality in the world."

"I am pleased that the board rejected this effort as an impermissible trespass on the human rights of District residents," Catania said in a statement.

In its 13-page opinion, the board noted that some gay couples in the District are already legally married. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council approved a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

"The proposed initiative seeks to prohibit the District from continuing to recognize these same-sex marriages," the opinion states. "If passed, the initiative would, in contravention of the [Human Rights Act], strip same-sex couples of the rights and responsibilities of marriages currently recognized."

In June, the board also cited the Human Rights Act in its decision to block a proposal to hold a referendum to try to overturn the council bill recognizing same-sex marriages in other states.

Jackson and other same-sex marriage opponents appealed that decision to D.C. Superior Court, but the board's ruling was upheld. The opponents did not appeal that decision, but are saying they might launch a court fight over the latest ruling.

"This board is charged with the responsibility of protecting, not denying, the right of the citizens to vote and to engage in the legislative process guaranteed to them," said Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer representing Stand4MarriageDC, which opposes same-sex marriage.

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