On Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009, the D.C. City Council voted for the second time to approve the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Act of 2009. The Bill now goes to the mayor who will sign it and send it on to Congress.
Since we are still under control of Congress, lawmakers have 30 legislative days to review all our legislation and either let it pass without comment or reject or change it. It is anticipated that Congress, as it did with the bill allowing the District to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions, will allow civil marriage equality to become law. The District will then be allowed to formally issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples and we should all be celebrating.
But as we celebrate let us not forget that the battle isn’t over. We saw that in California and Maine. In the District, we are confident that our laws won’t allow for an initiative or referendum but you can never be 100 percent sure until the courts hand down a decision on our opponents’ suit in D.C. Superior Court. Whichever way the decision goes we can also anticipate an appeal. There may also be additional lawsuits yet to be filed.
The court battle now being led by D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles is to uphold the ruling of the Board of Elections & Ethics that referendums and initiatives aren’t legal under the Human Rights Act. The Campaign for All DC Families, an organization that I helped to found, will try to intercede in this court fight in support of the District. The Campaign is the coordinating organization specifically set up to help work with all the groups in D.C. supporting marriage equality, including DC for Marriage, Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance, DC for Democracy, the DC Coalition and the Stein Club, among others. The law firm of Covington and Burling, LLP has generously agreed to act as pro-bono counsel for the Campaign and is preparing the briefs that will be needed. Individual lawyers from around the nation and groups like the ACLU, Lambda Legal and others are working with the attorneys at Covington.
So we move forward after the Council vote with confidence. But still there are potential roadblocks ahead and we must continue to be vigilant. Remember that it took 10 years for Congress to let us implement our domestic partner legislation. They did this with a rider added to the D.C. appropriations bill that prevented us from spending any money to set up a domestic partnership registration. The same was true when the District passed needle exchange to protect our citizens against the spread of HIV/AIDS and Congress refused to let any District money be spent on this program.
We can be heartened that after many years of valiant fights on the Hill led by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and with a Democratic Congress, this year all those riders have been removed. But that didn’t happen without a fight and Congress actually looked at once again adding a rider to the bill that would have prevented the District from having needle exchange. So these issues will never go away totally until the District has both financial and legislative autonomy and it doesn’t look as if the Congress will give us that anytime soon.
So, as with other issues, marriage equality is one that we will have to remain vigilant about until either the District is granted legislative autonomy or we can guarantee that all future Congresses will be made up of people who actually respect everyone’s human rights. That could take some time from the way I read the nation.
But all that being said, today we have a right to celebrate and we should pop the Champagne corks. We should thank all the members of the Council, at least the 11 who supported this bill, for moving the District forward, and the mayor for signing the bill. I see this not only as a victory for the LGBT community but rather a victory for all the people of the District.
We must give special kudos to David Catania, the lead sponsor of this bill, for continuing to push the Council on this issue. Without David we wouldn’t be where we are today. And we need to thank the leaders in the LGBT community who have been moving this issue forward for decades: the GLAA, Stein Club, DC Coalition and many individuals who have worked to elect progressive candidates willing to say publicly, before their election, that they support marriage equality and equality for all.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.