A new law takes effect today in the nation’s capital, granting equal rights in marriage licensing for same-sex couples.
Washington, D.C.’s marriage equality legislation becomes law in spite of a Herculean effort by opponents to block its implementation through both legal action — including a last minute Hail Mary pass to the U. S. Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Roberts for a stay — as well as legislative maneuvering in the House and Senate.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday evening, March 2, denied a request to stop the District of Columbia’s new law from going into effect Wednesday, March 3. Anti-gay marriage opponent Harry Jackson and others had petitioned the high court to intervene to stop the "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act" from taking effect until voters could address the issue through referendum.
While Roberts said he thinks the argument Jackson’s group makes "has some force," he said the high court typically defers to the local courts concerning "matters of exclusively local concern."
He also noted that Congress, which has the power to review D.C. laws for 30 days before they take effect, took no action against the measure. And he pointed out that Jackson’s group still has the option to seek a ballot measure through an initiative process, rather than a referendum.
At 8:30 Wednesday morning, hundreds of same-sex couple began applying for licenses inside the Moultrie Courthouse where the D. C. marriage bureau is located, just blocks away from the U. S. Capitol.
No weddings will take place immediately, however, because of a mandatory three-day waiting period required of all couples marrying in the District. Accordingly, the first day couples can marry is Tuesday, March 9.
Even with a three-day wait, one couple in line for a marriage license — Aisha C. Mills and Danielle A. Moodie — could hardly contain their joy.
It feels "absolutely wonderful," Mills said during a telephone interview. "We’ve had a committed, long-term relationship for six years now, and we knew we wanted to live our lives together."
"When you tell people you are married, there’s no explanation needed," said Moodie. "When I say this is Aisha, my wife, people get it right away. With domestic partnerships, you have to explain what that means."
Additionally, getting married "is, for us, a safeguard as we make a family," said Mills.
As early as 5 a. m., couples were lining up, Moodie said, speaking from her cell phone, with couples there "from every ward in the city."
Mills and Moodie were number 11 in line.
Enacted by the City Council on Dec. 16, 2009, Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act could not become law until after a 30-day congressional review period, a provision of the District’s home rule charter, a requirement for all but a few of city council’s legislative actions.
And the bill was not assured smooth sailing on Capitol Hill. Two measures were introduced in House of Representatives and another in the Senate to forestall full equality in marriage.
One bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Jan. 31 sought to put "the marriage question to a referendum vote in the District of Columbia," explained Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. But with only two sponsors, the bill "got nowhere," she said.
An earlier House attempt, introduced on May 21 last year, defined "for all legal purposes ‘marriage’ as the union of one man and one woman." Even with nearly three dozen co-sponsors that bill also failed to gather momentum.
And yet another bill introduced in the House on Feb. 2, which had nine co-sponsors, sought to prevent the District of Columbia from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until after a local referendum or initiative were held on the marriage question.
The Congressional attempts to override District marriage law failed for a number of reasons, said Brian Moulton, HRC’s legislative counsel — the biggest being that Democrats control both houses of Congress.
"Certainly there’s not much appetite among Democrats, even those opposed to marriage equality, to interfere with the affairs of D. C.," said Moulton.
Mouton said he also thinks people "saw it as a bit of irony, wanting to put marriage up for a vote by the people of the District when the same [House] members oppose granting a voting member for the District in their own chamber."
Moulton said he doesn’t think the law is "out of the woods" yet, noting that Congress has broad powers to meddle in D.C. government affairs. One possible scenario is marriage equality opponents attaching a rider to the D.C. appropriations bill to cut off any city spending related to issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Opponents have waged a vigorous campaign to stop the bill for months.
Last September, Harry Jackson and a coalition of religious and social conservatives petitioned the District’s Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) to allow an initiative to define marriage as "only the union of a man and woman is valid or recognized in the District of Columbia."
The board ruled that initiative was not permitted under the city’s Human Rights Act because it would authorize discrimination prohibited under the act.
In November, Bishop Jackson’s group sued in D. C. Superior Court, challenging the elections and ethics board decision. The petitioners claimed that the initiative does not violate the HRA and argued that subject limitation on initiatives violating the HRC is invalid in and of itself because such limitations violate the District’s charter.
When the D.C. Superior Court upheld the board’s ruling, Jackson’s coalition appealed to the D. C. Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are set for May 2010.
Meanwhile, implementation of the new marriage equality law makes Washington, D. C, the sixth jurisdiction — along with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont — to issue licenses to same-sex couples. The District is also the first location for marriage equality below the Mason-Dixon line.
Even before the law took effect, marriage equality supporters began to celebrate, joining D. C. Delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton for a reception marking the end of the 30-day congressional review period, held at the Rayburn House Office Building, with music provided by the Gay Men’s Chorus.
"It’s a great day for the city," Holmes Norton said, yesterday afternoon during a telephone press conference. This evening, "We’re gonna sing it from the hilltops."
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