A measure to let voters decide whether to ban same-sex marriages in D.C. cannot go on the ballot because it would violate a city human rights law, the Board of Elections and Ethics ruled Tuesday.
The D.C. City Council is expected to approve gay marriage next month, but opponents wanted voters to weigh in.
The elections board said allowing residents to vote on a ban would conflict with the city's 1977 Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination.
Errol R. Arthur, chairman of the two-member board, suggested as much at an October hearing. He said in a press release Tuesday that the "laws of the District of Columbia preclude us from allowing this initiative to move forward."
D.C. Councilman David Catania applauded the board's ruling.
“At the time of its passage, the District’s Human Rights Act was one of the most comprehensive statements on equality in the world," Catania said in a statement. "For over 30 years, we have endeavored to perfect and expand our understanding of equality. The proposed initiative would have stripped legally married same-sex couples of their vows. Those who proposed the initiative were attempting to write discrimination into our law, and I am pleased that the board rejected this effort as an impermissible trespass on the human rights of District residents.”
A group called Stand4MarriageDC wanted a ballot measure that said "only marriage between a man and woman" should be "valid or recognized" in the city. The group's head is Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland church pastor who has been vocal in opposing the
same-sex marriage law.
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"This undemocratic decision is outrageous and a slap in the face of every resident of the District of Columbia,” Jackson said in a press release. “To deny the people their fundamental right to vote on such an important issue as the definition of marriage in our society is simply appalling.”
Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for the group, said members would appeal the ruling in D.C. Superior Court, likely within the week. She said the ruling was not a surprise and the measure does not violate the city's human rights act. She said the board made a mistake.
If the D.C. Council has the right to "change the law in order for same-same sex couples to marry," she said, "the people have the same rights ... to make law on the same subject."
“According to the requirements of the law, if none of the grounds for rejection exist, the Board must accept the proposed initiative or referendum,” Mitchell said in a news release. “This board is charged with the responsibility of protecting, not denying, the right of the citizens to vote and to engage in the legislative process guaranteed to them.”
This isn't the first time the board has cited the act in striking down a proposal to put a same-sex marriage issue before voters. In June the board rejected an effort to hold a referendum on whether Washington should recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The D.C. Council had previously voted to recognize those marriages.
Four states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont -- allow same-sex marriage, and New Hampshire will join them starting Jan. 1.