LGBT activists watched with interest last week as the D.C. City Council took steps to advance one bill that would allow more people to perform marriage ceremonies and another that would repeal a little-known city law that prohibits surrogacy parenting.
On Tuesday, June 18, the Council’s Committee of the Whole, which includes all Council members, voted to schedule a first-reading vote on June 26 for the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act of 2013.
The bill, among other things, would authorize same-sex and opposite-sex couples applying for a marriage license to designate a friend, parent, sibling or any other adult as a one-time “temporary officiant” empowered to perform the marriage. The current law limits the selection of the person who can perform a marriage ceremony to licensed clergy members, judges and court employees designated as officiants.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) wrote the bill and co-introduced it with five colleagues, including gay Council members David Catania (I-At-Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
In an unexpected development, Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is a candidate for mayor, exercised her authority to take the bill off the Council’s consent calendar, which would have enabled the Council to approve the bill on June 26 by unanimous consent without a roll call vote.
Bowser expressed concern about a provision in the bill that would allow couples that obtain a marriage license to act as their own officiant and to perform the marriage ceremony themselves. Bowser’s action prompted Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance President Rick Rosendall and National Capital Area ACLU Legal Director Arthur Spitzer to send email messages to each Council member expressing support for the “self-officiation” provision. The two urged the Council to retain the provision and to oppose a possible amendment introduced by Bowser to take the provision out of the bill.
Bowser told the Blade she supports the bill and expects to vote for it. But she said she took the bill off the consent agenda to enable her to ask some questions about the self-officiation provision.
“That one provision, as you know, was not in the introduced version of the bill,” she said. “And it is a departure from our witnessed and officiated ceremony for marriage in the District. And it’s a very new concept and I wanted to make sure it works…and that it gives due weight to entering into a marriage.”
Bowser said as of early this week she doesn’t plan to introduce an amendment on the Council floor to delete the provision. “Personally I favor that,” she said, referring to marriages performed by a third party officiant. “But I’m willing to listen to what people want.”
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who supports the bill, has suggested adding members of the City Council to the list of people authorized to perform a marriage ceremony. Rosendall and Spitzer said they have no objections to Barry’s suggestion.
In a separate action, the Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee held a public hearing on June 20 on a revised version of the Surrogacy Parenting Agreement Act of 2013, which was introduced earlier this year by Catania. All 12 of Catania’s fellow Council members signed on as co-sponsors of the original bill.
The measure, renamed the Collaborative Reproduction Act of 2013, would make it legal for same-sex or opposite-sex couples — or a single intended parent — to arrange for a woman to carry a fertilized egg to term on behalf of the couple or single person. The revised bill includes language that would make the intended couple or single person the legal parents of the child. Current D.C. law prohibits surrogacy arrangements.
The 15-page draft bill discussed at the hearing includes detailed legal provisions that would help potential surrogates and couples seeking a child work out a complex arrangement to compensate the surrogate for direct and indirect costs associated with a pregnancy and the delivery of a baby in a hospital.
Gay rights attorney Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor, called on the committee to change the bill to include in all its provisions regulations for both a “gestational” and “traditional” surrogacy. Polikoff noted that the revised bill is mostly limited to addressing gestational surrogacy.
Gestational surrogacy allows the prospective parent or parents to provide a fertilized egg to be implanted in the surrogate. The process for doing this, Polikoff said, involves a medical procedure that could cost more than $100,000, making it difficult or impossible for many prospective parents to afford.
Traditional surrogacy involves the insemination of semen from one of the members of the couple or single person into the surrogate, in which case the surrogate becomes the biological mother of the child.
Polikoff said the draft bill would legalize traditional surrogacy but it lacks the detailed procedural language in the form of a regulation that it includes for gestational surrogacy, which she said is needed to help the “traditional” surrogate and prospective parents work out a legal agreement.
“With no such regulation in place, every time a gay male couple wants to conceive and raise a child, and that couple cannot afford gestational surrogacy, they are on their own, as is the woman who agrees to help them become parents,” Polikoff said in her testimony. “I don’t think the City Council should leave to their own devices that portion of this city’s population.”
Polikoff also called for a new provision in the bill to give a surrogate a short period of time after giving birth to back out of the deal and become the legal parent of and gain custody of the child.
Phillip L. Husband, general counsel for the D.C. Department of Health, who testified on behalf of the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, said the administration supports the legislation but offered more than two-dozen suggested changes in the bill’s wording that he said would strengthen the measure and improve the city’s ability to implement it.
The Judiciary and Public Safety Committee must next draft a final version of the bill before the measure goes to the full Council for a vote.