Four of the city’s most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage, including Bishop Harry Jackson, presented or submitted testimony at a D.C. Council hearing on Oct. 14 expressing opposition to a bill that would allow marriages to be performed in D.C. by a notary public.
Another three witnesses, including D.C. gay activist Bob Summersgill, who coordinated lobbying for the same-sex marriage law, testified in favor the bill, the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2010.
The bill would add D.C. to the ranks of Florida, South Carolina and Maine that currently allow a notary public to perform a civil wedding.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, presided over the hearing. He noted that the bill under consideration applies to all marriages and should not be viewed as an extension of the same-sex marriage bill.
But local gay rights and same-sex marriage opponents Minister Leroy Swailes, Michael Sindram, and Richard Urban testified that, coming just a few months after the same-sex marriage law took effect, the notary marriage bill would continue what they called the city’s trend toward disrupting traditional marriage.
“It seems to be a way to push through more same-sex marriages and to further weaken the institution of marriage in my opinion,” Urban told the committee. “Having notaries perform marriages is a bad idea.”
Jackson, who did not appear in person, arranged for Carl Hayes, one of his supporters, to read his testimony.
“Implicit in the proposed law’s dramatic change in venues and officials is a devaluation of both the decision to get married and the institution of marriage,” Hayes quoted Jackson as saying.
“Changing the type and caliber of officiants could result in creating an atmosphere in which citizens enter into the depths of legal and personal commitment required by marriage without giving the decision the reverence and the solemnity it requires,” Hayes read from Jackson’s testimony.
D.C. residents Steven Lowe and Melody Hensley, who said they were involved with local secular humanist groups, joined Summersgill in supporting the bill as a means of providing another option for couples who choose to marry outside a church or religious setting.
Lowe noted that under the current law, non-religious weddings can only be performed by judges, who limit their availability to people who know them personally, and court-designated “officiants” who perform civil marriages in a small room at the D.C. courthouse that can’t accommodate more than about a dozen guests.
He said designating notaries public to perform civil marriages would enable all couples choosing a non-religious ceremony to arrange for a notary to marry them at locations ranging from private homes to large reception halls.
Summersgill called on the Council to expand the bill to create “professional, non-clergy licensed marriage officers” to perform marriages in addition to a notary public. He also called for the bill to create a one-day “marriage officiant” designation that would allow couples to choose a friend or relative to perform their marriage who doesn’t have to become a notary or marriage officer to do so.
Mendelson told the Blade he believes more research is needed to look into issues surrounding the bill. He said he has no immediate plans to seek a vote on the bill in committee or before the full Council.
The bill was co-introduced by Council members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), and David Catania (I-At-Large). Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) co-sponsored the bill.