On Tuesday, council members of the District of Colombia (DC) again voted to approve civil marriages for gay and lesbian couples, passing Councilman David Catania’s marriage equality bill with a majority vote of 11 to 2.
This means that the bill will now go to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s desk. The mayor has pledged to sign the bill, and based on the usual legislative process this would normally indicate that the bill will now become law. However, things are not quite so straight forward in DC. More on that below.
First, the Human Rights Campaign released a statement following the vote, a part of which reads:
“Today’s vote is a victory for all D.C. residents, whose relationships will soon be treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law. This legislation is an important and historic step towards equal dignity, equal respect and equal rights for same-sex couples here in our nation’s capital, which also preserves the right of clergy and congregations to adhere to their faiths. The legislation the Council passed today reinforces the legal equality and religious freedoms to which all D.C. residents are entitled.”
Kevin Cathcart, Executive Director of Lambda Legal, also released a statement saying:
“Our capital city is embracing the true promise of our Constitution – everyone should be treated equally. More Americans are extending support to gay and lesbian couples who want full marriage equality and this victory in Washington sends a strong message.
“It’s a wonderful new day for fairness. We congratulate the members of the Washington, D.C. City Council for their leadership and commitment to equality.
“Elected officials in New Jersey also have the opportunity to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and we urge them to do so quickly.”
However, marriage equality in DC is not the done deal that it might appear to be because of DC’s unique status as a separate entity that, at the same time, has its laws overseen by Congress because the District lacks the full autonomy of a state.
So, once passed by the DC Council and signed by the mayor, legislation goes to a 30 day congressional review period where Congress can choose to intervene and introduce a resolution to veto the law.
Just hours after the vote, the National Organization of Marriage (NOM), who are strict opponents of gay civil marriage, said that they would seek such action from Congress.
NOM are particularly upset that, try as they might, they could not put the issue of gay marriage on the ballot because of DC’s Human Rights Act which prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, among other protected classes. Therein, the Human Rights Act prevents a ballot measure that could authorize such discrimination. The DC Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that a ballot initiative to define marriage as being solely between one man and one woman would indeed violate the Human Rights Act in this regard.
Here’s an excerpt from NOM’s press release following the vote:
“…Working closely with Stand4Marriage DC, we are committed to protecting the rights of DC voters who are being disenfranchised by their own government.
The arrogance shown by DC Councilmembers has been simply outrageous. Eleven of the Council’s 13 members are determined to force same-sex marriage on the District, even if that means trampling the DC City Charter and depriving District residents of the right to vote.
The DC Charter guarantees its citizens the right to put an initiative on the ballot for a District-wide vote, but earlier this month, the Board of Elections rejected a measure that would state: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in the District of Columbia.”
Read the full press release courtesy of Pam’s House Blend.
Interestingly, Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md, challenged the DC Board of Elections and Ethics on their refusal of a ballot measure. He lost.
Now, Bishop Jackson has indicated that he will take his fight all the way to the Supreme Court if he and his supporters can not win in the lower chambers. Should Congress refuse their call to action, NOM may choose to back Bishop Jackson’s legal efforts.
So how likely is it that Congress will intervene?
Earlier this year, Congress made very little noise when gay marriage opponents tried to have Congress veto a DC bill which recognized gay marriages from other states.
There is some opposition to this gay civil marriage bill however, as signaled by Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who has vowed to oppose the measure. Still, in a recent statement he notes:
“It’s going to be exceptionally difficult because Democrats have us outnumbered by large amounts… nevertheless, we’re going to try.”
Blocking the marriage legislation would require both chambers of Congress to introduce and pass a resolution bill in the next 30 legislative days. Should both chambers pass the joint resolution to veto, President Obama would then have to sign it. In this eventuality, what President Obama chooses to do next would be interesting because it would put the issue of gay marriage, that many have accused him of dodging, front and center.
To find out more on congressional involvement in DC legislation, please click here for an explanation of the process.
One notable point is that Congress has chosen to veto DC legislation quite rarely in the past few years, preferring, instead, to use its budgetary oversight powers to filter legislation by preventing DC having the funds it needs to implement those laws Congress does not agree with. This is another avenue that NOM and gay marriage opponents within Congress may pursue if Congress as a whole is not willing to use its veto power.
In related news, you may recall that, back in November, the Archdiocese of Washington and affiliated Catholic organizations had said that they would cease helping the city’s homeless if the marriage bill passed. More on that here.
However, following Tuesday’s vote on the bill, I am pleased to say that the Archdiocese of Washington has reportedly backtracked and issued a statement confirming that they will not stop their charity work. They cite that the bill “redefines marriage” against the central teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but then also say:
“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. This commitment is integral to our Catholic faith and will remain unchanged into the future.“
At the 2009 ballot, voters in the State of Washington passed a domestic partnership law which expanded previous domestic partnership legislation to grant all the legal and financial benefits and rights that can be given to gay domestic partners under current federal law. DOMA prevents US citizens in gay marriages or domestic/civil partnerships from receiving around 1138 of the federal benefits that heterosexual married couples are allowed.
Sign this Care2 petition to show your support for the Respect for Marriage Act and end DOMA today.
Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to Jeff Belmonte.