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Same-sex marriage (SSM) in Washington, DC

Hearings before two city committees.
Plebiscite not allowed. Bill passes to council.

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A testimony in favor of SSM:

Rick Rosendall, is Vice President for Political Affairs of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA). He referred to GLAA as part of a "broad-based coalition for equality," that included over 250 clergy from DC.

Rosendall and many others gave testimony before the city's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary on whether to recommend that the city council pass or reject Bill 18-482, the "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009."

He commented:

  • The first state in the U.S. to approve SSM was Massachusetts. Their divorce rate has gone down to pre-World War II levels. The divorce rate in Massachusetts is far lower than in the states that form the "Bible belt."

  • "It is improper to put human rights protections to a plebiscite; it is also against D.C. law."

  • Polls indicate that most adults in Washington DC favor SSM. This implies that a referendum to repeal the SSM law would fail.

  • "Our lives are as worthy as yours, our love is as strong as yours, and our resolve is as great as yours. Civil marriage equality will protect and strengthen thousands of actual families and make our city more faithful to its motto, 'Justitia Omnibus' [Justice for all]."

In his written testimony he provided references to studies that show that children of same-sex couples do just as well as children of opposite-sex couples. He suggested that his:

"... opponents should stop using children to slander gay people. At issue here is not whether our families will exist. You will hear today from people whose love has overcome every obstacle that prejudice has thrown in their way. The question is whether we will enjoy equal protection of the law." 1

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Hearing before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to "Let the People Vote:"

Back on 2009-MAY-05, the mayor of Washington DC signed a bill into law recognizing in DC any same-sex marriages that were legally performed out of state. On MAY-27, a group of religious and social conservatives filed a petition before the Board of Elections and Ethics. They asked that the Board authorize a referendum so that the public could decide whether to repeal the bill or let it stand. Hearings were held on JUN-10. The Board ruled that they could not approve the referendum because it would discriminate against some  couples because of their sexual orientation. This would be a violation of the District's Human Rights Act

Religious and social conservatives filed a second petition with the same board requesting a new referendum: to let the public vote on whether to accept or reject same-sex marriages made in the District.

A group of about 150 protestors were bussed into downtown Washington on 2009-OCT-26, the day before the Board hearing. They came mainly from conservative Christian churches in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia suburbs to demonstrate against marriage equality.

Howard Butler of Holy Temple Church of God, a local, predominately black church said:  "No one has the right to pass laws without checking with the taxpaying citizens of the District of Columbia." 2

The proposed ballot initiative would ask voters to agree or disagree that "... only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the District of Columbia." If passed, same-sex couples:

bulletWould be unable to marry in DC, and
bulletWould be unable to marry in other jurisdictions and have their marriages recognized in DC.

The Board of Elections and Ethics again ruled that the initiative would discriminate against individuals on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation. They issued a memorandum on NOV-17 stating, in part:

"The District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics today released a memorandum opinion on the 'Marriage Initiative of 2009', which would establish that 'only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the District of Columbia'."

"Under current law, the District recognizes as valid same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. The Board concludes that that the Marriage Initiative of 2009 would, if passed, strip same-sex couples who have entered into such marriages of rights afforded to them by that recognition. Accordingly, the Board orders in its memorandum that the Initiative be received but not accepted under D.C. Code section 1-1001.16(b)(2), which prohibits the Board from accepting an initiative that authorizes discrimination prohibited under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act." 3

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC) disagrees with the ruling. The ERLC feels that the ruling by the Board violates the District of Columbia's charter, which guarantees citizen the right to vote -- even on initiatives whose sole purpose is to strip a group of a fundamental human right -- the right to marry the person to whom one has made a lifetime commitment. A lawsuit has been launched. 1

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Comments on the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics' decision:

Doug Carlson of the ERLC commented:

"To disenfranchise 400,000 Washingtonians on an institution as fundamental and consequential as marriage is a brash show of disregard for the democratic process. Until the D.C. Council and Congress get the message, they need a continuous reminder: Let the people vote! 1

Carlson may have missed the irony in his statement. He appears to have overlooked the fact that the purpose of the referendum was to "disenfranchise ... Washingtonians on an institution as fundamental and consequential as marriage" by not allowing same-sex couples to marry.

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SSM bill successfully passed by Safety/Judiciary committee:

Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairperson of the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary of the Washington DC Council issued a slightly revised bill. Two changes had been made:

bulletThe original bill called for registration of new domestic partnerships in Washington DC to be terminated after 2011-JAN. This provision was deleted.
bulletA second change would allow churches and other religious institutions the freedom to discriminate against same-sex couples. They would be able to refuse to marry same-sex couples or to refuse to rent facilities to such couples, even though those institutions provided both services to the general public.

On 2009-NOV-10, a markup hearing was held by the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary of the Washington DC Council.

By a vote of 4 to 1, an amendment was defeated that would have also allowed individuals to refuse to provide goods and services related to a same-sex marriage. With the defeat of the amendment, owners of flower shops, photographers, hall owners, clothing stores, etc. would be unable to legally discriminate against loving, committed same-sex couples arranging their weddings.

The Committee then voted 4 to 1 to pass the bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the district to the whole Council. 4

bulletChairperson Phil Mendelson said the bill was "both simple and monumental."
bulletCouncil member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said: "We will get this to the mayor and Congress and it will become law."
bulletCouncil member Yvette Alexander (D-ward 7) provided the sole negative vote against the bill.

The full City Council was scheduled to discuss and vote on the bill on 2009-DEC-01. 5

According to the Washington Blade:

"Eleven of the Council's 13 members have said they will vote for the marriage bill when it reaches the full Council, and Mayor Adrian Fenty has said he plans to sign the measure. ..."

"Bob Summersgill, a gay activist who has coordinated efforts on behalf of D.C. domestic partnership and same-sex marriage legislation, agreed."

" 'There's no chance that the bill won't pass the Council,' he said. 'It's very likely the vote will be 11-2' in favor of the bill."

"Summersgill predicted the Democratic controlled Congress would not overturn or block the bill from becoming law during a required 30-day legislative congressional review period following approval of the legislation by the City Council."

"But he said gay rights opponents in Congress might attempt to 'do something' against the legislation next summer, when the city's budget comes up for congressional review."

" 'If they're going to hurt us,' Summersgill said, 'that's where they'll do it'." 6

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The story continues

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Doug Carlson, "A (Bad) Marriage Made in Washington," The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, 2009-DEC-01, at:
  2. Tim Craig, "Both sides mobilize on same-sex marriage. Rally by opponents precedes election board, D.C. Council hearings," Washington Post, 2009-OCT-26, at:
  3. "D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Releases Memorandum Opinion and Order on Marriage Initiative of 2009," DC Board of Elections & Ethics, 2009-NOV-17, at:
  4. "A bill 18-482 in the council of the District of Columbia," Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, 2009-NOV-10, at: This is a PDF file.
  5. Anne Bartlett, "D.C. council committee approves same-sex marriage bill," D.C. Wire, 2009-MPV-10, at:
  6. Lou Chibbaro, Jr., "Marriage vote set for Dec. 1. D.C. Council committee votes 4-1 to kill broad religious exemption," Washington Blade, 2009-NOV-11, at:

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