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DC Council votes for marriage equality
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DC Council votes for marriage equality

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

By a vote of 11 to 2, the City Council of Washington DC passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Tuesday, December 1.

Titled the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, the bill authorizes same-sex civil marriage, while exempting religious institutions from any obligation to perform or recognize such marriages.

Aisha Mills, president of the Campaign for All D.C. Families, said in a statement after the vote:

"Today we celebrate the District of Columbia City Council's initial vote to extend marriage equality to all residents. When passed this important law will provide Gay and Lesbian couples the securities and protections of marriage and create a stronger community for all of us."

The bill must now be voted on for a second time by the City Council, and then goes to Congress for a 30-day review.

The second City Council vote is scheduled in two weeks. DC Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said he will sign it.

Because the District of Columbia is administered by the federal government, Congress has the final say on all local ordinances. If Congress does not act to block the measure within the 30-day review period, it will become law.

Openly Gay Council member David Catania (I-At Large), the bill's prime sponsor, said before the vote, "It really speaks to the long and rich tradition of tolerance and acceptance that does make up the sense of place in the District of Columbia," but the Council's vote reflected deep divisions in the city.

Two council members who represent majority-black wards - former DC Mayor Marion Barry (D-8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-7) - voted against the measure. Both said they were under considerable pressure from African American ministers in their wards to vote against the bill.

In an emotional speech, Barry pleaded with the city's LGBT community not to hold his vote against him, saying that he has battled for Gay rights since he began his political career in the 1970s.

"I stand here today to express, in no uncertain terms, my strong commitment to the Gay and Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender community on almost every issue except this one," Barry said.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-5), who represents a majority-black ward in northeast DC, came to a different conclusion.

"I represent a ward that is torn down the middle on this issue," Thomas said. "But as a legislator, I cannot allow my personal or religious life to allow for the disenfranchisement of any individual in the District."

Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large), who voted for the bill, said he has taken flak from constituents who oppose same-sex marriage "because of their religious upbringing, of being in the Baptist Church that clearly defined what they think."

Baptists were not the only religious group opposed to the measure, however. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has been locked in an intense public battle with the city over the legislation.

At one point in November, the Archdiocese threatened to halt all its charitable and social service work in DC if the bill passed. Catholic Charities claims to serve 68,000 people in DC, and to supplement the city's social services budget with $10 million from its own coffers.

Catania, who is Roman Catholic and a Catholic Charities donor, said he would rather end the city's relationship with the Archdiocese than give in to its demands. "They don't represent, in my mind, an indispensable component of our social services infrastructure," he said.

After passage of the legislation, the Archdiocese appeared to step back from its earlier threats.

Archdiocese spokesperson Susan Gibbs said the Church will continue to provide services but with fewer resources, because it will no longer be able to bid on city contracts.

"We are just asking for a [compromise] bill that would balance the city's interest in legalizing same-sex marriage and religious groups' interest in following their faith teachings," Gibbs said.

On the other side of the issue, about 200 ministers, representing a broad spectrum of faith traditions, formed DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality.

"We declare that our faith calls us to affirm marriage equality for loving same-sex couples," they said in a statement issued October 30.

Catania, who quit the Republican party five years ago over the issue of same-sex marriage, told his colleagues that he was pleased and surprised by the vote.

"It's hard to capture the significance of this day and this event," Catania said after the vote. "It's a day I never thought would come."

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