October 21, 2010 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Gay marriage opponents denounce ‘notary’ wedding bill

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.

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

9 Comments
  • Sounds as though some people want to keep the lucrative special privilege that D.C. law now gives them. As for appeals to tradition, those ministers do realize, I trust, that in the Christian world until the 16th century, people outside of the nobility typically got married without either clergy officiation or state licensing.

  • “. . . . to further weaken the institution of marriage . . .” Let’s talk reality. In the U.S., 50% of marriages end up in divorce. Of course, these are heterosexual marriages since that’s the only kind available! Further, kids are increasing being born to single women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics for 2007 (the latest year of recorded data) 40% of children in the U.S. are born to single women, this is a blended number. The breakdown is: 28% to white women; 51% of Latinas; and 72% to Black women. Again, 72% of kids are born to Black women. If “Bishop” Jackson and his ilk really want to do something about marriage then they can clean up their own backyard! Address the real issue challenging “traditional marriage” in D.C. — minorities having children outside of marriage. It seems so obvious and simple, but then again, why use reason since they haven’t up to this point. It is so obvious that this is about homophobia in the black church.

  • Bishop Harry Jackson and Minister Leroy Swailes are clearly treading on thin ice constitutionally with their opposition to a bill that would allow marriages to be performed in D.C. by a notary public.

    As members of the clergy, Jackson and Swailes are free to voice their opinions like everyone else, but they have no constitutional authority to interfere with the D.C. government’s authority to empower notaries public to perform civil wedding ceremonies.

    By now, it should be obvious that their fight against same-gender marriage is rooted inextricably in religious approbations against homosexuality — and that they have no respect for the constitutional separation of church and state. They have every right under the First Amendment to refuse the religious sacrament of matrimony to gay and lesbian couples, but those couples have a constitutionally protected right to civil marriage — which is the exclusive province of the state — and the clergy cannot interfere with that.

  • St. Vincent of Annandale

    It seems to me that the Bishop and minister should be preaching “keep your knees together” and your “zipper up”. What happens to all the black “fathers” who plant their seeds and disappear?

  • My reply to St. Vincent of Annandale………………………

    the guys like bishop long, and mostlikely Jackson are busy planting their seeds where they will not grow. In the mouths and uknowhats of young children, Male and female.

  • Do not like competition! As Str8 Americans increasingly have non-religious marriage ceremonies (even here in the Midwest), they are fighting for their market share of the lucrative wedding business.

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