By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009; A01
The D.C. Council voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to legalize same-sex marriage in the District, a key step in a process that could enable gay couples to marry in the nation's capital by the spring.
After months of debate, the council passed the legislation 11 to 2 after a lively discussion that elicited passionate statements from members about the historical significance of their action.
A second vote, scheduled in two weeks, is necessary for the measure to become law. The bill's sponsors said final passage is almost certain, although the bill could be tweaked. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said he will sign it.
The bill will also be subject to a 30-day congressional review period, but officials in both parties said it is unlikely that the Democratic majority in Congress will block the measure. The District would join New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Massachusetts in allowing same-sex marriage. It would be the first jurisdiction in the region to do so.
"This is a culmination of the entire gay rights movement," Richard J. Rosendall, a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance of Washington D.C., said after the vote. "We have spent many, many, years working toward this."
Same-sex marriage opponents, including the Archdiocese of Washington and dozens of other religious leaders, conceded that they are running out of time and options to stop the bill from becoming law.
"In a sense, they won two or three years ago . . . behind the scenes," said Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and one of the most visible opponents of the bill. He said that only Congress or the courts can slow the city's march toward legalizing same-sex marriage. "Our only options are legal."
Council members and gay rights activists hailed the vote as the end of a decades-long struggle that started in 1975, when then-council member Arrington Dixon (D) first proposed legalizing same-sex marriage in the District.
That proposal was shouted down by city religious leaders, council members said, but in the meantime, city leaders have been laying the groundwork for Tuesday's decision, including authorizing domestic partnerships in 1992, repealing a ban on sodomy a year later and passing a bill this year to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
"It really speaks to the long and rich tradition of tolerance and acceptance that does make up the sense of place in the District of Columbia," council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the chief sponsor of the bill, said before the vote.
But the council's action did little to bridge divisions in the city over the legislation.
The two council members who represent majority-black wards east of the Anacostia River -- Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) -- voted against the legislation.
Private polls show that black voters are far more likely than white voters in the District to oppose same-sex marriage. And Barry and Alexander have said they were under considerable pressure from African American ministers in their wards to vote against the bill.
In a emotional speech before he cast his vote, Barry pleaded with gay men and lesbians not to hold his vote against him, saying that he has battled for gay rights since he began his political career in the 1970s.
"I stand here today to express, in no uncertain terms, my strong commitment to the gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender community on almost every issue except this one," Barry said.
Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who represents a majority-black ward in Northeast, came to a different conclusion.
"I represent a ward that is torn down the middle on this issue," Thomas said. "But as a legislator, I cannot allow my personal . . . or religious life to allow for the disenfranchisement of any individual in the District."
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has been locked in an intense public relations battle with the city over the legislation.
The bill approved Tuesday does not require churches or religious organizations to participate in same-sex marriages. But there has been considerable debate about whether religious organizations, including Catholic Charities, would be required to offer the same benefits to their married gay and married heterosexual employees.
Without changes to the bill to exempt the Church from having to abide by the legislation, church officials have said, Catholic Charities might have to end its contracts with the city to provide social services, including operating homeless shelters and facilitating city-sponsored adoptions.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a key sponsor of the bill, said he may still "tweak" the bill to try to accommodate the Church before the final vote, scheduled for Dec. 15. But Mendelson and other members indicated Tuesday that they are not likely to make new broad exemptions.
"Marriage is just not about two individuals who want to marry. It requires that . . . every third party recognize that couple being married," Mendelson said. "Exemptions are a very troublesome slope because it undoes what we are trying to do here."
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said that if a compromise is not reached, the Church will continue to provide services but with fewer resources, because it will no longer be able to bid on city contracts.
"We are just asking for a bill that would balance the city's interest in legalizing same-sex marriage and religious groups' interest in following their faith teachings," Gibbs said.
Other religious leaders are turning their attention to a potential court battle over whether the city should allow a public vote on whether to ban same-sex marriage.
Two weeks ago, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that city laws prohibit a public vote because it would discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Jackson and several other opponents have filed suit in D.C. Superior Court seeking to reverse the election board's decision. Jackson noted that last month voters in Maine overturned a same-sex marriage law that had been approved by that state's legislature.
For gay rights activists in the District, that there is no immediate threat of a referendum is a testament to the efforts of the movement's first generation of leaders.
Craig Howell, 63, of Dupont Circle recalled how he and other activists fought in 1978 to insert a provision into the city's Human Rights Act to outlaw a public vote on a matter involving the rights of gays or other minority groups.
The same year, the gay community scored a major political victory when Barry, a strong supporter of gay rights, was elected mayor and Dixon was elected council chairman. "That was kind of the end of anti-gay prejudice as a viable political force in Washington D.C.," Howell said.
By the late 1980s, the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance was asking candidates their positions on same-sex marriage.
Still, Catania, who left the Republican party five years ago over the issue of same-sex marriage, told his colleagues that he is a bit surprised by the vote.
"It's hard to capture the significance of this day and this event," Catania said. "It's a day I never thought would come."
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.