December 18, 2009 at 1:50 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Council gives final approval to marriage bill

Same-sex marriage supporters rallied on Monday night in advance of the Council’s historic vote. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

In an action hailed as historic and groundbreaking, the D.C. City Council voted 11-2 this week to give final approval of a bill allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the nation’s capital.

Tuesday’s vote triggered a burst of applause from dozens of LGBT activists and same-sex couples who packed the Council chambers to watch the debate and final roll-call vote on the Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009.

“Today is the final step in a long march toward equality in the District of Columbia,” said Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the committee that shepherded the bill through the Council.

Alisha Mills, president of the local same-sex marriage advocacy group Campaign for All Families, called the Council’s action “a historic day for the District of Columbia” and its lesbian and gay couples.

“Equality for all D.C. residents has prevailed,” she said. “The Council’s decision today embodies the true essence of leadership. Thanks to their bold work, all D.C. families will have the same protections, opportunities and obligations under the law.”

The bill next goes to Mayor Adrian Fenty, a long-time same-sex marriage supporter who has pledged to sign it. It then goes to Capitol Hill, where it must undergo a required 30 legislative day review by Congress.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate agree that an attempt by same-sex marriage opponents to overturn the legislation through a disapproval resolution is not expected to succeed in the Democratic controlled Congress. Most Capitol Hill observers expect the legislation to clear the congressional review and become law sometime in March.

But political observers in the District and on Capitol Hill say opponents would have a better shot at killing the bill next year by seeking to attach a repeal amendment to an appropriations bill, possibly the D.C. appropriations bill, which Congress must approve each year.

The city’s same-sex marriage law also is being targeted by a bill introduced earlier this year that would ban same-same marriage in the city. The bill, known as the D.C. Defense of Marriage Act, currently has 61 co-sponsors in the House. It has yet to be introduced in the Senate. Most Capitol Hill observers say it has little or no chance of passing any time soon under a Democratic controlled Congress.

But Brian Brown, executive director of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, issued a statement after the Council vote vowing that gay marriage opponents will “win” in their efforts to overturn the law.

“The media would have you believe this fight is over,” Brown said in the statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Among other things, Brown predicted gay marriage opponents would prevail in a pending court case to force the District to hold a voter referendum calling for banning same-sex marriage in the city, a referendum that he said voters would pass.

If the city’s same-sex marriage bill clears its congressional review and withstands efforts to challenge it through a referendum, D.C. would join Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire as a U.S. jurisdiction that allows same-sex marriages to be performed within its borders.

Gay Council members David Catania (I-At Large), author of the D.C. same-sex marriage bill, and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) noted that the Council’s action culminated 40 years of advocacy work in the city by LGBT activists and their straight allies.

“It’s very easy for someone like me to be overcome by the emotion of this action,” said Graham, who was involved in gay activism as head of D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Clinic before winning election to the Council.

Graham called passage of the same-sex marriage bill “the final prize” in the quest for full LGBT equality in the city, although he added that efforts to push for non-discrimination policies would continue.

Gay activist Bob Summersgill, who has coordinated efforts to expand the city’s domestic partnership law and to push for same-sex marriage, said he was hopeful that gay-supportive congressional allies, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), would beat back attempts to overturn the law through the appropriations process.

“This was the next big step that we had,” Summersgill said of the Council’s approval of the same-sex marriage bill.

“But now we’re done with the easy part of getting marriage in D.C.,” he said. “We’ve had the ability to get this through the Council for about a decade. The real challenge now is for the Congress not to act, not to hurt us in the 30 days, when no one thinks they will, and the appropriations time, where we’re less sure.”

Same-sex marriage opponents are currently waging a court fight to challenge a decision by the city’s Board of Elections & Ethics against allowing a voter referendum or initiative on the marriage bill. The board ruled that the city’s election law doesn’t allow voter initiatives or referenda if the outcome of such a ballot measure would result in discrimination barred by the city’s Human Rights Act.

The board ruled twice that a ballot measure on the marriage bill would violate the D.C. Human Rights Act’s ban on sexual orientation discrimination. Same-sex marriage opponents have challenged that ruling in D.C. Superior Court and have vowed to take their legal action to the U.S. Supreme Court if they lose in the lower courts.

Meanwhile, Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and a leader in the fight to oppose same-sex marriage in the District, told the D.C. Agenda that he and his supporters would file papers next week for yet another referendum to overturn the marriage bill approved Tuesday.

As such, the D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics would once again be asked to rule on whether such a referendum is allowed. Most legal observers believe the board will turn down Jackson’s application for a referendum, just as it has for Jackson’s two similar requests earlier this year.

The first attempt at a referendum was aimed at a bill the Council approved in May that allows the city to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries. That measure became law in July after it cleared its congressional review.

The recognition measure allows same-sex couples in D.C. to travel to other states to marry and to return to the District with full marriage rights under D.C. law. Activists viewed the recognition law as a trial run for the full same-sex marriage bill approved Tuesday, which allows same-sex couples to marry in the city.

But same-sex couples that marry in D.C., just like their counterparts in other states that have legalized same-sex marriage, cannot obtain any of the more than 1,000 federal rights and benefits associated with marriage, such as Social Security survivor benefits. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, bans same-sex couples from receiving federal marital benefits and rights.

Gay advocacy groups are urging Congress to repeal DOMA. Democratic lawmakers supportive of LGBT rights have said, however, that they don’t have the votes to pass a DOMA repeal measure in the immediate future.

Council member and former mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) were the only members of the 13-member Council to vote against the same-sex marriage bill Tuesday.

Both said they support LGBT rights in all other areas but could not back same-sex marriage based on their religious beliefs and strong opposition to the legislation from their constituents.

During the Council debate, Catania called on the LGBT community not to judge Barry and Alexander solely on the gay marriage vote, saying both have strong pro-LGBT records on all other issues.

“They are not the typical individuals that you would find casting votes against the GLBT community,” Catania said.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed [in their vote],” he said. “But I don’t want their entire service within the GLBT community to be judged by this one vote. I don’t think that’s fair. They are my friends, and they’re decent. This is simply a difference of opinion.”

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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