The District is poised once again to become the battleground for a divisive social issue as the D.C. Council moves a step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage, an action that could force Congress and White House to take sides in the debate.This is great news for marriage equality advocates, but it is bound to piss off Bishop Harry Jackson, the local Catholic Church and the National Organization for Marriage, who just opened an office in the capital.
After months of buildup and behind-the-scenes lobbying, a bill by David A. Catania, one of two openly gay members of the council, has been drafted and is ready to be introduced in the coming weeks. Catania (I-At Large) expects a final vote before the end of the year. On Thursday, Catania said he had 10 co-sponsors, all but assuring that the measure will be approved by the council. The bill would have to survive congressional review before it could become law.
The bill, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, would change the law to say that "marriage is the legally recognized union of two people" and that "any person who otherwise meets the eligibility requirements . . . may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender."
They have been working hard on getting the issue put on a ballot for D.C. residents to vote upon, but since this move failed when it came to the District's decision to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside its borders (a judge cited it would violate the District's Human Rights Act), it will most likely fail on this as well. Many also believe that they would be unsuccessful in gathering enough signatures.
Speculation on marriage equality opponents' next move is to drum up the racial division over the issue, stirring up many of the African American residents who attend churches in the area that adamantly resist LGBT legislation.
Catania's bill, titled "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009," will most likely be voted upon and passed by the end of the year and the mayor has expressed support and most likely will sign it.
However, since the District isn't a state, U.S. Congress has the final word on legislative matters. Congress has 30 session days, not calendar days, to oppose District bills. When the same-sex marriage recognition bill came into fruition, Congress steered clear with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressing her belief that the District should be treated like a state.
This time, however, marriage equality opponents are urging like-minded individuals across the country to call their representatives to put an end to Catania's bill. Congress can also choose to express displeasure with the bill when it goes over D.C.'s budget next year by diverting funds and forcing the District to not perform same-sex marriages.
Yet optimism is high. Catania, who clearly wrote in the bill that no religious organizations or their officials would have to perform a same-sex marriage or provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples, was able to secure 10 city council co-sponsors with only three Democratic members opting out. One of these is councilmen Marion Barry, who voted against the recognition bill but told the Washington Post, "Let [Catania] introduce his bill, and we'll see."
Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Public Safety and the Judiciary Committee, plans to hold a public hearing on the bill, just as they had done on the same-sex marriage recognition ordinance.
"I will look in particular at protecting religious freedoms for churches to be able to say yes or no to celebrating marriages consistent with their faith," Mendelson said.
Though councilmembers face a blacklash from voters who oppose marriage equality, with 10 co-sponsors attached to the bill, it appears their minds have been made up. If it passes, Washington D.C. will be the first area south of the Mason-Dixon line legalizing marriage equality.
Read about the further impact of marriage equality in the nation's capitol at Change.org, "Five Reasons Why Same-Sex Marriage in D.C. Would Be Huge."