Tom Sherwood’s Notebook: 11/04/09

Gay marriage opponents, supporters and proposals

By Tom Sherwood
|  Wednesday, Nov 4, 2009  |  Updated 11:15 PM EDT
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A DC Council First

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More than 260 people signed up to testify at the D.C. Council’s two days of hearings on same-sex marriage this past week, but the number of witnesses was not a record. We think baseball holds that honor.

The hearings featured the expected declarations for and against same-sex marriage.

Those in opposition mostly cited religious beliefs, declaring that marriage is a holy covenant between one man and one woman. (No one mentions the divorce rate.)

Opponents, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, also worry that the city law would require parish priests to rent their sanctuaries to gay couples -- despite a provision stating that no member of the clergy is required to perform same-sex ceremonies.

The Archdiocese of Washington warned last week that the legislation offers "no exemptions" for religious organizations of any type that "provide services to the general public or rent space to individuals or groups outside of their faith.” In other words, if an organization opens itself to the public, it must not discriminate. If it is private, then it may. We’ll let lawyers sort out the details.

There may be amendments to clarify “religious freedom” in the bill, but the bill’s supporters say they won’t back any amendment that make gay marriages “second-class ceremonies.”

Those in support of marriage equality mostly offer testimony regarding human rights and civil rights, anti-discrimination and fairness as Americans.

Witness Nos. 147 and 148 on the list of 267 names took the issue one step further.

“I hope to love, honor and cherish Andy, care for him in sickness and health,” said Andrew Hertzberg (No. 148), sitting next to Andy Rollman (No. 147).

And with those brief comments, Hertzberg stood at the witness table and asked Rollman to marry him. Applause broke out in the council chamber.

Hertzberg said he didn’t tell Rollman beforehand that he was going to propose, but had hinted that something would happen at the end of his testimony.

“No, I didn’t know,” Rollman said later to reporters in the hallway. He said he had an inkling that the proposal might happen and he was “praying that it would happen.”

Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham said he believed the proposal was a first in D.C. Council history.

“It was very touching, from the heart," he told NBC4. "It really matters to have this issue defined in those terms.”

The Rev. Anthony Evans, who also testified, said he was not moved.

“I guess they wanted to dramatize the issue of marriage. But the church is very clear.”

Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative and a leader in the battle against allowing gay marriage in the District, said tactics would include backing candidates to run against at least some of the council members who support same-sex marriage. And he was especially bitter about Mayor Adrian Fenty.

“And also, we’re going to go after Pope Fenty,” Evans said, mocking the mayor for not being a member of a church. “He doesn’t have a church, he doesn’t have a pastor … and yet he’s dictating religious edicts.”

Fenty has said he supports and will sign the bill when the council passes it, which is nearly assured since 11 of 13 members have indicated support.

The same-sex marriage issue is supported by a wide array of citizens in the District, including many ministers, but it’s clear the issue is not as prominent in much of the black community as it is in others.

Carlene Cheatam, a black community and lesbian activist since 1980, said she supports marriage equality.

“I’m confident it will pass,” she said.

But she said the issue is not widely discussed in the African-American community for cultural reasons, and she said many African-Americans in the gay community are more focused on education, health care and equal housing issues.

• The Real Battle?

Even opponents of the same-sex legislation know it’s going to pass, thanks to the 11 council members who signed on as introducers or co-sponsors. (Council members Marion Barry of Ward 8 and Yvette Alexander of Ward 7 did not.)

Once the bill is passed and signed by the mayor, it begins an uncertain journey to Capitol Hill.

Under the city’s home rule charter, each piece of legislation -- except for emergency bills that last only 90 days -- must “lay over” on Capitol Hill for 30 legislative days. And to be clear, legislative days are days the Congress is in session. So that’s a lot longer than 30 calendar days.

During the layover, any member of Congress can raise an objection to the bill, triggering a review and vote by congressional committees.

That has happened only a few times in the city’s history, but this is an emotional issue for many people and there’s a national election coming up. If you think gun control and voting rights are controversial, wait ‘til this bill gets to the Hill.

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