With about 200 spectators cheering from the pews, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty signed a bill last week to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington during a ceremony at a church that played a leading role in pushing for black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
“To the world, today an era of struggle ends for thousands of residents of Washington, D.C., who have been denied the fundamental right to marry the person of their choosing,” Fenty told the gathering at All Souls Unitarian Church in Northwest D.C.
“I say to all those residents who watch the nation’s capital today that our city is taking a leap forward in ensuring freedom and equality to all residents.”
Fenty signed the Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009 four days after the D.C. Council gave its final approval of the measure, 11-2.
The signing also came five months after a separate bill passed by the Council and signed by Fenty, which recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, became law after clearing its required congressional review.
The measure that Fenty signed Friday was expected to be sent to Capitol Hill this week, where it, too, must undergo a congressional review of 30 legislative days. Most congressional observers expect the Democratic controlled Congress will allow the bill to become law by taking no legislative action to overturn it.
“The signing of this bill marks a watershed moment for human rights in the District of Columbia,” said Rev. Robert Hardies, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church and one of the leaders of a coalition of D.C. clergy members who support same-sex marriage equality.
“I and the nearly 200 D.C. clergy who supported this bill look forward to celebrating the marriages of loving lesbian and gay couples in sanctuaries like this one all over our city,” he said.
Among those standing behind Fenty as he signed the bill at a table set up in front of the church alter were D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray (D-At Large); gay Council member David Catania (I-At Large), author and lead sponsor of the bill; and Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chair of the committee that shepherded the bill through the Council.
Also standing at the table for the signing were gay Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), in whose ward the church is located; Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 1); Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5); and Fenty’s LGBT Affairs Office director, Christopher Dyer.
Fenty and Catania, among others participating in the bill signing ceremony, said the decision to hold the event in a church was symbolic of the message they sought to project during the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in the city: that the legislation would not infringe on the rights of people of faith and would, in fact, give ministers supportive of marriage equality the right to legally perform same-sex marriages.
Most of the opposition to the legislation was led by clergy who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and the lead spokesperson for the bill’s opponents, has vowed to continue efforts to urge Congress to overturn the legislation.
Jackson and his supporters also are appealing in D.C. Superior Court a ruling by the city’s election board denying a proposed voter initiative that sought to ban same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia.
Catania told people gathered for the bill’s signing that six generations of his family, including his grandfather, have been Baptist ministers. He noted that leaders of the churches in which his ancestors were a part were outspoken abolitionists in the fight against slavery prior to the Civil War.
“I was raised in a household that loved this country,” he said. “And at times, even in our struggles, we wonder whether our best days are behind us. I have to be completely honest with you. I’ve never been more certain in my life that our best days are before us.”
Catania said the passage and signing of a same-sex marriage bill was the culmination of years of work from committed LGBT activists and their allies, beginning with veteran D.C. gay activist Frank Kameny, who is credited with founding the local LGBT rights movement in the early 1960s.
“I was fortunate enough to simply guide the process and draft [the bill], but it would not have taken place without the extraordinary leadership of Phil Mendelson on the Judiciary Committee and our non-stop support from our [Council] chairman. And enough cannot be said about the rank and file members of this Council, who stood with us.”
Sources familiar with the mayor’s office said Fenty also considered holding the signing ceremony at Covenant Baptist church in
Southeast D.C., which is headed by pro-same-sex marriage pastors Dennis and Christine Wiley. The Wileys, along with Hardies of All Souls, were co-chairs of the coalition of clergy backing same-sex marriage. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Fenty is thought to have chosen All Souls in part because it’s located in the neighborhood where he grew up.
In his remarks, Fenty introduced his parents, who were in the audience, and noted that their status as an interracial couple made them a part of the marriage equality movement.
“My parents know a little something about marriage equality,” he said. “They married almost 40 years ago and in a country at the time where every jurisdiction didn’t agree that an interracial couple should be married. Had they not been able to, I would not be standing here as mayor of the District of Columbia right now.”
Graham, who, along with Catania, has been a longtime LGBT rights advocate, appeared to express the emotion that many LGBT activists and same-sex couples present at the bill signing event shared.
“Thank God for this day,” he said. “Thank God that I was able to live to see this day.”
Graham praised Fenty for standing out as a “certainty” that the bill would be signed whenever the Council felt the time was right to pass it.
He also pointed to the historic support All Souls Unitarian Church provided for the African American civil rights movement in the 1950s, when the church founded one of the city’s first integrated youth clubs. It was at a time when D.C.’s youth recreation facilities were segregated among black and whites.
“We can’t overlook how fitting it is that we are in this church,” he said, “because this church has a great tradition of fighting for civil rights and human rights.”
Fenty, Catania and Graham were beseeched after the ceremony by activists and same-sex couples attending the event who asked them to pose for pictures with them and to sign copies of a mayoral press statement announcing the bill signing.
“It’s an exciting day for many of us,” said gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein, one of the organizers of the same-sex marriage advocacy group Campaign for All D.C. Families. “It’s a day that many of us thought wouldn’t come in our lifetimes. It’s for us and for future generations.”
Michael Crawford, co-chair of D.C. for Marriage, said he doesn’t believe Fenty and the 11 Council members who voted for the bill would face serious opposition in their upcoming elections over this specific issue.
“The folks who are claiming they will enact political retribution against Council members that voted for marriage equality, by and large, don’t live in the District,” he said. “So it’s going to be pretty difficult for them to have an impact on District elections.”
Rev. Abena McCray, pastor of D.C.’s LGBT welcoming Unity Fellowship Church, and Bishop Rainey Cheeks, pastor of the city’s Inner Light Ministries, which also has a largely LGBT congregation, each said the mayor’s signing of the marriage bill would boost the faith and morale of LGBT people of faith.
“I don’t anticipate a backlash,” McCray said, when asked about clergy who have opposed the bill.
“God is in control,” she said. “God spoke today. History was made. And we’re going to move forward in only one thing, and that’s love.”
Cheeks said he expects efforts by people of faith to fight the legislation will be diminished once they understand it.
“When they really understand that this law does not take away anything from anybody, it adds to,” they will be far less likely to try to reverse the law, he said.
“Every church and every denomination already has the right to say no to whomever they want to say no to,” Cheeks said, on the question of performing same-sex marriages. “It simply expands the right for us to be able to do what we need to do.”