D.C. approves same-sex marriage; civl rights vs. gay rights

Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009; 2:00 PM

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.

Washington Post staff writer Tim Craig was online Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the controversial legislation that has elicited passionate statements about the historical significance of their action and the rift over civil vs. gay rights.


Tim Craig: Good Afternoon. I'm ready to take a few questions about the D.C. Council's apparent decision to legalize same-sex marriage. One vote down. But still one to go in about two weeks. Either way, this battle is rapidly shifting from City Hall to Congress...


Southeast D.C.: So if all goes well, when can I marry my partner here in D.C.?

Tim Craig: Council officials believe that, barring a big battle over a lawsuit or intervention by Congress, same-sex couples will be able to marry in D.C. by mid spring, or perhaps late spring at the latest. It all comes down to how many days Congress is in session. Once the bill is signed by Mayor Fenty - he has pledged to sign it - Congress gets 30 legislative days to review it. So if Congress is in session a lot of days early next year, that process will be completed sooner than if Congress takes a bunch of days off. After the congressional review period is over, the bill becomes law.


Washington, D.C.: I wonder how long it will take for some Republican congressman from some place in the midwest to start legislation to disallow this so he can make a name for himself and put another nail in the coffin of D.C. statehood, just like what happened with the handgun ban.

Tim Craig: This question is key to both the short-term and long-term survival of same-sex marriage in the District. As is well known, Congress can overturn any law approved by the Council. Congress also has control over the D.C. budget. So even if Congress does not intervene in the bill before it takes effect next year, there is always a chance that a Republicans or Democratic member can seek to undermine same-sex marriage in the District at a future date. With a Democratic House and Senate and President, gay rights activists are fairly confident that the bill will not be threatened in the short-term. But what would happen if the GOP retakes control of both the House and Senate and the White House in 2012? I think it's harder to ban same-sex marriage once they have already started taking place but, as was the case in California, its not impossible either.


Washington, D.C.: Here's what I don't understand. It's been illegal for years to discriminate based on sexual orientation or marital status in D.C. Gay couples, unmarried straight couples, and singles have been adopting and their rights to do so have been protected. What is the Catholic Diocese complaining about now? Have they just been skirting the law all these years?

Tim Craig: Under current law Catholic Charities is not required to extend spousal benefits because there is no legally defined "spouse" in a same-sex relations. The District's domestic partnership law does not deal with this issue. Once same-sex marriage is legal, however, the church fears and most council members agree it would have to give spousal benefits to gay married couples if it gives them to heterosexual married couples. The issue of gay adoption is murkier. Gay rights activists claim the church is already in violation of D.C. law related to permitting gay adoptions, especially if one uses city tax dollars. But everyone has sort of looked the other way. Plus, the church has some internal policies that make it easier for it to prioritize adoptions for married couples. Gay couples are currently not legally married, but once the law is changed the church will have a harder time to explaining how it can treat gay and heterosexual married couples differently.


Los Angeles, Calif.: So Congress can kill it?

Tim Craig: yes. Congress can kill it. But even Republicans members of Congress believe its not likely that both the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, as well as President Obama, will agree to kill it. Even if congress members oppose same-sex marriage, which many do, D.C. leaders will argue its an issue of Home Rule..


Fairfax, Va.: Please explain why some blacks in the city are not in favor of this and don't like gay rights to be treated the same way civil rights are.

Tim Craig: This question is probably better suited for a sociologist.

But, since you've asked, I would say it deals with the role religion plays in black culture and society. The two have been closely interlinked since slavery in this country. Other factors, such as education levels and income, also may come into play. In D.C., however, its wrong to assume all African-Americans oppose same-sex marriage.

In fact, I would argue D.C.'s black community is probably far more supportive of same-sex marriage than they are many other states or cities. More than black or white, this issue often comes to education, income and young versus

My colleague, Christian Davenport, explored this issue in a piece this morning. There is a split on this issue between older and younger African-Americans


Arlington, Va.: I heard Georgetown got around the gay issue by just calling it a domestic partnership and basically pretending that none of these people were actually in a gay relationship? Basically a don't ask, don't tell for benefits. Would the Church consider a similar policy?

Tim Craig: The D.C. Council sent a letter to Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl two weeks ago pointing out Georgetown's Policy. But Church officials haven't been really clear why that policy would not work in this situation. At Georgetown, any person who lives in the same household of an employee can qualify for partner benefits. This removes the marriage and/or gay issue.


washingtonpost.com: In D.C., a rift over plights for civil rights, gay rights (Post, Dec. 2)


Washington, D.C.: In your coverage of this historic vote, and the earlier preceding skirmishes before the Board of Elections and Ethics, what have you found most surprising?

Tim Craig: Two things. First, how little organized opposition there has been from members of the faith community and others.

The second is how, at the same time, the gay community seems sort of lethargic. Even though gays account for a sizeable part of the D.C. population, you often see the same 10 to 20 gay rights activists at all the meetings, hearings, etc...

Its almost like both sides consider this thing a done-deal so they don't really feel like fighting one way or another.


Silver Spring, Md.: In an earlier response, you noted that it would be possible for later Congresses to counteract? repeal? this law. Politically, how hard would it be to later try and change it? And do you think it would be successful? That's a lot of political capital to spend on the city that is kind enough to host Congress. If that happened, can we refer to it as the "uncivil" rights act?

Tim Craig: I think it would be very, very hard. Even if the Republicans amass considerable majorities in the 2010 or 2012 or 2014 elections, I am not sure the GOP leadership would want to be viewed as undoing same-sex marriages once they have already started.

One interesting question, however, is what happens when gay couples from around the country start getting married in DC and taking wedding photos on the steps of Capitol Hill, on the Mall, in front of the White House? Will Congress be able to handle it?


Richmond, Va.: Will the passing of the law enable same-sex couples to reap the benefits that opposite sex couples receive as a result of marriage/union?

Tim Craig: Once the bill passes, married same-sex couples would get all the rights/benefits of heterosexual couples under D.C. law. But they would still not receive federal marriage benefits. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, married gay couples would still have to file separate federal income taxes, would not qualify for joint social security, etc. But any right under D.C. law given to a heterosexual married couple would also be extended to a married gay couple.


At Georgetown, any person who lives in the same household of an employee can qualify for partner benefits: But isn't the difference that for legally married partners, health insurance through a spouse isn't taxable income, yet it is taxable for unmarried domestic partners? That could start to add up to real money on a yearly basis.

Tim Craig: I will look into this. Don't have a good answer


Upper Marlboro, Md.: The split in the black community is based primarily on those who take religion seriously and those who see it as an optional or "socially binding" toss-off. Also, there are many who consider it to be insulting to equate homosexual sex with civil rights. For black people who take religion seriously, not at the surface, the fact that there is no religious exception is also a major problem, though the press is focused on bashing Catholics again (Never miss an opportunity). A religious exception has been passed in many other areas, why not in D.C.?

Tim Craig: There is already a religious exemption in the bill. Under the legislation as approved Tuesday, no church or religious official can be forced to participate in a same-sex wedding. Gay couples do not have an automatic right to use any church they want for their wedding. Churches even have the right to deny reception space in a church basement - even if that same space is made available to heterosexual couples. The debate currently stems on what happens after a couple is legally married. Can a church or religious person treat that married gay couple differently than a married heterosexual couple? D.C. Council members say no, at least for now.


The power of the Bishops: How likely are Catholic bishops to threaten to withhold Communion from members who vote for same-sex marriage and its spousal benefits?

Tim Craig: Not sure, but a timely question considering the stories out of Rhode Island concerning Congressman Kennedy. In case you are wondering, Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) are all Catholics. I think there also a few more, but can't think of them off the top of my head.


D.C.: "At Georgetown, any person who lives in the same household of an employee can qualify for partner benefits: But isn't the difference that for legally married partners, health insurance through a spouse isn't taxable income, yet it is taxable for unmarried domestic partners? That could start to add up to real money on a yearly basis."

Actually, the Defense of Marriage Act would prevail here, federal tax law still won't recognize DC same sex spouses as married. So benefits will still be taxed.

Tim Craig: another opinion I will share without comment


U Street, D.C.: I'm somewhat amused by the efforts of those outside of the District to have a voter referendum on same-sex marriage. Since when did all these people care about the rights of D.C. voters?

Tim Craig: Gay Rights activists have similar arguments. The counter argument is that 31 states have allowed a public vote on this matter (voters in all 31 rejected same-sex marriage). To understand how and why D.C. will not allow a vote, you have to go back to the late 1970s. At the time, conservative activist Anita Bryant was on a state-by-state push to get voters to reverse anti discrimination laws. (This was well documented in the movie Milk, about the life of the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk)

Gay rights activists in D.C. were petrified she would bring her campaign to D.C. So they convinced then Council-member Marion Barry to amend the city code to prohibit a public vote on a matter protected by the Human Rights Act. According to the D.C. Board of Elections, that law stands today. (Although there is a pending lawsuit)


Hartford, Conn.: I have a brother who hasn't been able to purchase employer-sponsored health care for many years. I have had a 50+ year relationship with this blood relative. Why is this relationship not given similar legal protection?

Tim Craig: Interesting public policy question. In some states, domestic partnership laws can be extended to members of the same-family. I also believe some employers on their own offer such benefits, but I am not an expert on this subject.


Gay rights and civil rights: From what I understand racial discrimination is different from gay/lesbian discrimination. A person may want their civil rights but it doesn't mean their religious beliefs embrace homosexuality. Personally I think it's BS but just because a person is black doesn't mean they should be cast as hypocrites for not supporting gay marriage. On another note, repeal Prop 8 in California.

Tim Craig: Yes, your point is shared by many in the African-American community. Other African-Americans, however, see very little difference between the civil rights struggle for African-Americans and the efforts now by gays and lesbians to secure same-sex marriage. This is a debate that will continue to unfold within the black community.


Hoquiam, Wash.: Assuming the Dems in Congress leave it alone, is there much the Republicans can do to stop it?

Tim Craig: Its always possible for Republicans (or a Democrat for that matter) to try to attach an amendment onto another bill or onto the D.C. budget.

This is what happened when the D.C. voting rights bill was moving through Congress earlier this year. At the request of the National Rifle Association, a member of Congress proposed an amendment that essentially undid the city's gun control laws. It passed both the House and Senate because Democrats from rural areas -- including Virginia Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Jim Webb (D) - supported it.

City leaders were then forced to decide if getting the voting rights bill passed was worth giving up their right to set their own gun laws. So far, they have decided it's not worth it, and the voting rights bill has been shelved for now.

But many believe, with the current Congress, there are big differences between the gun issue and same-sex marriage bill.

One big difference is there are no organizations as powerful as the NRA fighting same-sex marriage. The Family Research Council, for example, does not have a lot of influence with Democrats.

Virginia Sens. Webb and Warner, for example, have stated they believe D.C. should be allowed to set its own policy on same-sex marriage.


Taxes and Benefits: Right now, established domestic partners qualify for all the rights and burdens as married people in D.C. Calling it marriage just makes the process somewhat more clear, but can't establish federal rights. Also, I'm no tax lawyer, but I'm pretty sure what's locally exempt from income as taxes has nothing to do with what the employer calls it, but what the relationship is. Of course, that's only D.C. taxes. Federal taxes are of course unavoidable.

Tim Craig: I will pass on without comment


Washington, D.C.: If the question is really about the 14th Amendment and equality why have other states been able to overturn rights by voting on propositions? Wouldn't blacks still be second class citizens if they had their rights voted upon?

Tim Craig: This is argument is used by gay rights activists in defending D.C.'s approach. Regardless of how you feel about this issue, its pretty clear the District has a very progressive approach to the question of whether a matter like same-sex marriage can be put up for a vote.


D.C.: Let's say that both sides hold their ground here and that the Church pulls its services from D.C. Is anyone better off at all? The poor don't get services, the social workers could lose their jobs and the gays still don't get any benefits. What are the chances of a special exemption for the Church?

Tim Craig: I do not think the church will get a broad exemption to be allowed to treat gay and heterosexual couples differently. But some minor changes may still be made to the bill to accommodate the church. If a compromise is not reached, its remains up for debate whether the Church would really pull out of its city contracts. Some council members think the church is bluffing. Church officials, however, appear pretty adamant that they will not violate what they consider their church teachings and values. Stay tuned


Churches: But for the recent kerfuffle with the Catholics, it does seem that "church" influence in this city has diminished greatly over the years. Likely attributable to shifts both in church-going demographics and social mores in general. Other than in real estate/tax exemption issues, do you think the churches have any particular real sway on social issues here anymore?

Tim Craig: I wrote a story about this last week. You can find it at the linke below.



Tim Craig: That is all the time I have today. Sorry for all the questions that I did not get to. But feel free to email me at craigt@washpost.com


washingtonpost.com: Church's influence on politics shifting (Post, Nov. 25)


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