D.C. Council approves same-sex marriage bill

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A01

The District was on the verge Tuesday of becoming the sixth place in the country to legalize same-sex marriage after the council gave final approval to its bill allowing the unions.

The legislation would allow gay couples from anywhere in the country to marry in the city. Those couples who live in the District would be entitled to all rights afforded to heterosexual married couples under District laws.

Although a final signature on the bill by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) could come by the end of the week, same-sex marriage opponents vowed to step up their effort to get Congress or a court to block the initiative during the 30-day congressional review period.

The 11 to 2 council decision, which caps a nearly year-long debate, set off a wave of excitement across the gay community, both locally and nationally. "In many ways, this is the final prize," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), one of two people on the council who are openly gay.

According to an analysis by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, more than 10,000 same-sex couples from across the country could get married in the District over the next three years if the measure becomes law.

The analysis, created in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's historic council vote, estimates that 2,000 gay couples who live in the District will marry shortly after the law takes effect. But the bulk of the weddings, which could pump millions of dollars into the regional economy, would probably be out-of-state couples unable to marry in their own states, according to the analysis, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. It concludes that at least $5 million, and perhaps as much as $22 million, would be generated by same-sex weddings in the District over the next three years.

Local and national gay rights leaders note that opponents face a difficult fight: Both the Democratic-controlled House and Senate and President Obama would all have to block the legislation, which is unlikely.

But council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the bill's sponsor and the other openly gay member on the council, cautioned that Congress also could unravel the measure through budget maneuvers in future years.

"There is no question: We are going to have to be defending it and defending it and defending it until the other side realizes they are losing more votes by being tethered to the past," Catania said.

Several opponents of same-sex marriage warned that the celebrations were premature. They are seeking a public vote on the issue, and some are meeting with members of Congress on Wednesday.

"God's war has just started," Bob King, a community activist who lives in Northeast, said a few minutes after the vote. "Shame on them. We're going to get to the ballot box through either the courts or the Congress. So tell everyone: Don't let the marriage licenses start flowing."

Still, same-sex marriage supporters heralded the council's action, saying it helps the movement rebound from the stinging defeat suffered two weeks ago when the New York Senate rejected same-sex marriage.

"This is a place people come to see the Constitution and understand what it means to be equal, so symbolically this means a great deal," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group that co-sponsored a party with the council Tuesday night.

Same-sex marriages are legal in Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts, and next month, New Hampshire joins the list.

In the weeks leading to the council's vote, the Archdiocese of Washington was engaged in a campaign to try to amend the bill because it feared that it would force its charities to extend spousal benefits to same-sex couples. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the committee that oversaw the legislation, said he was unable to reach an agreement with the church that would not lead to discrimination against same-sex couples, but church and city officials said they will continue their talks.

Deacon Maccubbin, the owner of the Lambda Rising bookstore in Dupont Circle, held a commitment ceremony with his partner 28 years ago but plans to rush off to get officially married as soon as it is allowed here.

"We have done the church wedding, but we want to have the license, right here in the District of Columbia," Maccubbin said.

But Kathryn Hamm, president of GayWeddings.com in Arlington County, said many in the region's gay community are cautious, knowing that it could be months before gay marriage is legal in the District. Hamm, whose company helps engaged couples find gay-friendly wedding vendors, among other services, said she expects a surge in interest in the new year.

During Tuesday's council debate, members said their decision will tell the world that the District values equal and civil rights.

"Today, I am very proud of our city," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "I hope today we serve as beacon for those who have not been given full rights across our country."

Council members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who represent neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, voted against the bill.

Barry said he could not support the legislation because he thinks that a majority of his constituents oppose it but acknowledged that the council was making history.

"This must be a proud day for you, David, Mr. Graham," said Barry. "Just as it was a proud day for me when the voting rights bill was passed in 1965. But this is a democracy, and I reserve the right to disagree."

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

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