Friday, December 4, 2009

D.C. votes for marriage equality

The City Council of Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the district this week.

The council voted 11-2 Dec. 1 to approve legislation introduced in October by openly gay Councilmember David Catania that would extend full marriage rights and benefits to same-sex couples.

As per normal procedure, the council will have to vote a second time on the legislation, which is expected to take place Dec. 15, and the bill will then be sent to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a marriage-equality advocate. Congress then would have a 30-day period to enact a joint resolution disapproving the law, which would have to be signed by President Obama in order to thwart the legislation. Without a Congressional resolution, the bill will automatically become law.

If the bill passes, D.C. will become the first jurisdiction below the Mason-Dixon line to allow same-sex marriage. Such unions are currently legal in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa, and will begin in New Hampshire Jan. 1.

“Today’s vote is an important victory not only for the gay and lesbian community but for everyone who supports equal rights,” Catania said in a statement Tuesday. “Gays and lesbians bear every burden of citizenship and are entitled to every benefit and protection that the law allows. Whenever 11 out of 13 councilmembers vote to support any issue, it indicates that there is strong support for the issue among our constituents.”

The only councilmembers opposed to the bill were Yvette Alexander and Marion Barry, the thrice-divorced former mayor of D.C.

The council passed legislation in the spring that allowed D.C. to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other jurisdictions.

The marriage-equality measure drew intense national debate in the past few weeks after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of D.C. announced it would put a stop to its social services if the bill passed.

The legislation contains a religious-exemption clause that would allow churches to refrain from participating in same-sex unions, but the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities agency, which provides programming for some 68,000 poor and homeless people in the region, receives city funding, meaning it would have to follow city law. The archdiocese contends that church doctrine prevents it from recognizing same-sex couples as married and thus would prohibit it from providing benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees or authorizing same-sex married couples as adoptive parents.

D.C. Archdiocese spokesperson Susan Gibbs did not return calls for comment.

“The separation of church and state is one of the founding principles of our democracy,” Catania said this week. “However, I have always believed that our public space is large enough to accommodate and respect religious freedoms while ensuring civil equality under the law for all citizens. This bill successfully balances these requirements.”


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