January 14, 2010 at 7:42 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. judge rejects ballot measure on gay marriage

Opponents of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia lost their second court challenge in less than a year Thursday when a Superior Court judge ruled that a voter initiative seeking to ban such marriages cannot be placed on the ballot.

Judge Judith Macaluso ruled that the D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics acted properly in November when it rejected a proposed initiative calling for banning same-sex marriages in the city.

The election board said seeking a gay marriage ban was an impermissible subject for a ballot measure because it would violate the city’s Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Today’s decision affirms the District’s effort to make our city open and inclusive,” said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who signed a same-sex marriage bill last month shortly after the City Council approved it.

City officials and Capitol Hill observes believe the bill will become law the first week in March, when it’s expected to clear a required congressional review of 30 legislative days.

“Thanks to the Superior Court, this historic legislation is now one crucial step closer to being implemented,“ said D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who filed the city’s court brief opposing the ballot initiative.

“Many District residents have waited decades for full marriage rights,” he said. “Their wait will soon be over.”

The case on which Macaluso ruled, Harry Jackson Jr. v. District of Columbia Board of Elections & Ethics, is named for Bishop Harry Jackson, the Beltsville, Md., minister who is leading efforts to ban same-sex marriage in D.C.

Another Superior Court judge ruled against Jackson last year when he filed papers with the election board for a voter referendum to overturn a separate law that authorized the city to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Similar to Thursday’s ruling, the earlier ruling upheld an election board decision rejecting Jackson’s proposed referendum on grounds that it would violate the city’s Human Rights Act.

Among those who signed on as co-plaintiffs with Jackson in the case decided Thursday were Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the city’s former congressional delegate; Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Robert King; and Rev. Anthony Evans, a D.C. minister.

Attorneys representing Jackson and the other plaintiffs argued in court papers that the right of citizens to propose initiatives and referenda was established as an amendment to the congressionally approved D.C. City Charter. They noted that the restriction used by the city to disqualify initiatives and referenda that would violate the city’s Human Rights Act was established by a regular law passed by the City Council aimed at implementing the City Charter amendment.

According to Jackson and his attorneys, the Council’s restriction on an initiative or referendum seeking to ban same-sex marriage violates the City Charter, which created the initiative and referenda process without such a restriction.

In her ruling Thursday, Macaluso said the City Charter Amendment in question was passed by the City Council before being ratified by Congress. She said it gave the Council full authority to carry out the initiative and referenda process through implementing legislation.

“The most reasonable interpretation of events is that [the] Council … knew what it intended when it directed itself ‘to adopt such acts as are necessary to carry out the purpose of this [charter amendment ]’and that this intention included protection of minorities from the possibility of discriminatory initiatives,” Macaluso says in her ruling.

“Judge Macaluso applied the law impartially in this case, recognizing the D.C. Council’s right to define the initiative process consistent with the D.C. Charter,” said Tom Williamson, one of a team of attorneys who represented same-sex couples in a friend of the court brief supporting the city’s position in the case.

“The decision upholds the Council’s right to broadly protect human rights for all District residents,” said Williamson, who is with the D.C. law firm Covington & Burling, which is providing pro bono legal counsel to the same-sex couples.

Jackson and his fellow plaintiffs in the case could not be immediately reached for comment. They have said in the past that they would likely appeal a decision against them by Macaluso.

But some legal experts, including Williamson, have said Jackson most likely would not be able to appeal the case beyond the D.C. Court of Appeals to the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, because it doesn’t involve a federal constitutional issue.

Thirty-seven Republican members of the House of Representatives and two GOP U.S. senators had filed a separate friend of the court, or amicus, brief backing Jackson’s position in the case.

The GOP lawmakers are expected to take steps through congressional action later this year to overturn the city’s same-sex marriage bill after it becomes law in March. Same-sex marriage supporters, including national LGBT groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, have said they are hopeful that the Democratic controlled Congress will kill any attempt to overturn the marriage law.

“This second, back-to-back ruling by the D.C. Superior Court is an overwhelming victory for fairness, the rule of law and the protection of all D.C. residents against discrimination,” said Joe Solmonese, HRC’s president. “D.C. has the right to govern itself and make its own laws without the interference of 39 Republican members of Congress more interested in scoring cheap political points than in the everyday lives of D.C. residents.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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