D.C. Residents Battle Over Same-Sex Bill

They sat in the same hearing room, one close enough to touch the other. However, the beliefs of those who are for same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia and those who are against it were so far apart they might as well have been seated in different states.

Geraldine Washington, an opponent of same-sex marriage and one of 200 people who signed up to testify, called the D.C. Council hearing on the subject Monday afternoon a mockery of democracy.

Washington said she understood that the majority of the council has already made up its mind to pass the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009.

“Do not invite me to the coronation when the king has already been crowned,”Washington said.

One hundred people testified at Monday’s hearing on Bill 18-482. The Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary will hear testimony from the other 100 people on Nov.2.

In May, the Council voted to recognize the marriages of residents who were married in any of the six states where same-sex marriages are legal. A month later, a referendum on the Civil Marriage Equality Act was denied.

If passed, the amendment would permit same-sex marriage in the District. It would also protect officials of non-profit religious organization from being required to celebrate any marriage if doing so violates his or her rights.

The bill would amend the Health Care Benefits Expansion Act of 1992 and discontinue the registration of new domestic partnerships after Jan. 1, 2011. It would also allow homosexuals to continue their domestic partnerships or convert their partnerships into a marriage without paying additional fees.

Monday’s D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics hearing allowed religious leaders and residents to testify for a referendum on the amendment. It was held on behalf of Stand for Marriage D.C., which is against same-sex marriage.

“The people of Washington, D.C., have been denied their fundamental right to vote on whether to recognize homosexual ‘marriages’ performed outside of the District,” the group maintains on its Web site.

The Rev. Anthony Evans, executive director for the D.C. Black Church Initiative, is an opponent of the proposal and said he wants the Board of Elections to allow a vote on the issue.

“There is significant support for the Board of Elections to approve a ballot initiative,”  Evans said. “If we fail, we will have a movement to impeach the mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty; D.C. Chairman At-Large Phil Mendelson, and Councilman Kwame Brown.”

Same-sex marriages are not protected by the Human Rights Act of 1977, Evans said, and the city is obligated to allow citizens to vote on the issue.

Council members Mendelson, D-At Large, Brown, D-At Large, Muriel Bowser, D-Ward 4, Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6 and Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, told the audience they supported the amendment.

Ten of the 13 council members have said that they will vote in favor of the amendment.

Councilman Evans said he would not look kindly on opponents taking the matter to the Capitol if the bill is passed.

“We are a representative democracy, the council is elected to make the choices and frankly on this issue I think we do represent the majority of our voters,” Evans said. “We did not subject the 2007 school governance committee to a referendum. We did not subject the $700 million to a referendum. We would not be governing effectively if every major issue was considered subject to a referendum.”

Carol Steptoe of the Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission took exception to Evans’ remarks.

“Do not threaten the democracy of the citizens of the District of Columbia,” she told him.

Steptoe said that is ironic that the same city fighting for equal representation through voting representatives in Congress is being denied the ability to vote on the amendment.

Proponents of bill, like Nick McCoy, said they believe the bill will pass after the last of the hearings.

McCoy has spent the past six months traveling to every corner of the District trying to educate and garner support for same-sex marriage.  As a member of the gay community, McCoy said that what is done today will impact the way the future is shaped.

“I understand that there is a lot of work to do to ensure that marriage equality not only becomes a matter of law but also does not become a decisive issue for our community,” McCoy testified.

“‘Opponents have attempted to frame marriage equality as an issue that only affects white affluent people or communities. It is absurd to try and spend my civil rights in this way. I am a lower middle class black man and whole heartedly support the marriage equality legislation that you put forth.”