DC Same-Sex Marriage Bill Passes as Expected

Council votes 11-2 in favor of bill

As expected, the D.C. Council voted 11-2 in favor of same-sex marriage in the District Tuesday afternoon. It was the second of two required votes on the bill.

Mayor Adrian Fenty has said he will sign the bill.

The historic vote is of particular importance because it puts the same-sex marriage issue in front of Congress. Same-sex marriages would begin in the city as early as March, as soon as the bill passes a period of congressional review. Congress is not expected to alter the law.

The bill sponsored by openly gay Councilman David Catania had been expected to pass easily. Ten of the 13 council members supported its introduction. Only Councilman Marion Barry, Ward 8, and Councilwoman Yvette Alexander, Ward 7, voted against it Tuesday. Both have said their vote reflects the wishes of their constituents. Catania expressed regret that these colleagues would not be voting with him but noted their support of GLBT issues in the past.

Even with the dissent of Alexander and Barry, Tuesday's vote was a very cheerful, cordial event, with council members thanking and congratulating each other and patting each other on the back.  First on the roll, Councilwoman Mary Cheh playfully voted "I do." Councilman Jim Graham did likewise. Later, Barry voted "I don't."

The packed council chamber erupted into applause and cheers following the vote.

"I'm not voting no against the GLBT community," Barry said before the vote. "I'm voting no against this particular act."

Alexander again expressed the need for an open dialogue about same-sex marriage in her ward even after the passage of the bill. She also commended Catania's efforts to see this bill pass.

Councilman Harry Thomas also stressed the importance of equality education in the city.

Both Catania and Graham expressed great pride in being part of the vote, especially since sodomy was still a crime in the city as recently as 1992, when Councilman Jack Evans helped get that law overturned.

The Archdiocese of Washington has said the law could jeopardize its funding of D.C. social services to the poor and homeless, citing potential lawsuits against organizations and individuals for refusal to support same-sex marriage when such support would compromise Catholic beliefs, such as employee benefits, adoptions and use of church halls for events for same-sex married couples.

"Religious organizations such as Catholic Charities could be denied licenses or certification by the government, denied the right to offer adoption and foster care services, or no longer be able to partner with the city to provide social services for the needy," the archdiocese has said.

The Catholic Church wanted to be exempted from having to pay spousal benefits to any gay employees -- as the church doesn't recognize gay marriage -- and didn't want to be required to handle adoptions by gay couples.

Councilman Phil Mendelson said he has talked with the archdiocese about the bill but failed to reach language agreeable to both sides. He noted that Catholic Charities has continued successful operations in states where same-sex marriage has been legalized.

The archdiocese released a statement saying it remains committed to serving the poor.

"The Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities are deeply committed to serving those in need, regardless of race, creed, gender, ethnic origin or sexual orientation," read the statement. "This commitment is integral to our Catholic faith and will remain unchanged into the future."

Earlier this year, the council set the table for allowing same-sex marriages when it passed a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut already allow same-sex marriage. New Hampshire will join them Jan. 1.

Gay marriage supporters have had less success elsewhere recently. Maine voters overturned the state's same-sex marriage law last month. Earlier this month, the New York State Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed gay couples to marry. And New Jersey's legislature, which had been working on a same-sex marriage bill, postponed a recent vote when the measure appeared headed for defeat.

Tuesday's vote in the District followed months of discussion, including two marathon council hearings at which some 250 witnesses testified. Most testified in support of the law. One man proposed to his partner during his testimony.

Congress has 30 working days to reject it, but that has happened just three times in the past 25 years and appears unlikely in this.

Still, opponents plan to try. Members of a group called Stand4Marriage, led by local pastor Bishop Harry Jackson, have met with members of Congress to urge them to oppose the bill.

Attorney Cleta Mitchell said that after Fenty signs the bill and it goes to Congress, the group will ask a district elections board to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters to overturn it. She said in a statement before the vote that the law is a "decision for the people, not a dozen people at city hall."

The group Mitchell represents made a similar request this summer, when the city passed the law recognizing gay marriages legally performed in other states. The board declined to put the issue on the ballot, saying that would violate a city human rights law.

The group also has a lawsuit pending from earlier this year, when it tried to get an initiative on the ballot asking voters to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The elections board again cited the human rights law in saying no. A hearing in that case is scheduled for February.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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