Gay Marriage in Washington, D.C.

The D.C. city council, by a vote of 11-2, has given final approval to a bill authorizing same-sex marriage.  The vote caps a years-long lobbying effort by gay activists, including the main author of the bill, city council member David Catania. The mayor is expected to sign it. 

Opponents have a few options at this point, but none of them seem likely to work in the near term.  One would be to persuade the mayor not to sign the bill, despite his pledge to do so.  Another would be to force a popular referendum on the law.  The D.C. elections board has already determined that the bill is not subject to referendum because it comes within the Distict’s human-rights law.  Anti-SSM activists are already in court challenging that determination.

Congress could get involved in a couple of different ways. First, after the mayor signs the bill, there is a 30-day review period during which Congress could vote to disapprove it.  That is very unlikely given Democratic control of Congress — not because a majority in both Houses wouldn’t vote to reject the new law but because rejection won’t even get on the agenda.  Nobody in the Democratic camp will want to vote on this issue, especially in an election year. Further, any disapproval would be subject to veto. President Obama, who says he opposes gay marriage, could veto the bill as a matter of supporting the principle of D.C. home rule, analogous to his previously announced support of state prerogative on the issue.

Second, and more promising for those who oppose gay marriage, is a rider to the next congressional appropriation for D.C. sometime next year specifying that no money can be spent implementing the law. A vote on that issue, for the reasons given above, seems unlikely in a Congress controlled by Democrats.  What happens after November 2010 is another question, though the matter wouldn’t likely make it to the agenda of a GOP-controlled Congress until late 2011, if at all. By that time there will have been almost two years of gay marriage in the city with no obvious ill effects.

Finally, gay-marriage opponents can work to defeat the 11 council members who voted for the legislation. The problem is that each of the 11 has already faced the voters since announcing his or her support for the bill.  And I’m not aware of any legislator anywhere losing an election because of support for gay marriage.

If I’m right about the near-term prospects, marriage should be secure in the city. The lesson from Massachusetts and Vermont, and from California and Maine, is that the longer the day of electoral reckoning can be delayed the more likely it is that anti-SSM passions will subside. So, if gay marriage in D.C. survives 2010, it is probably here to stay.

D.C. will also be another test of the theory that, at least without expansive exemptions for religious objectors, there will significant erosion of religious liberty. The city’s Catholic leaders have already warned (some would say threatened) a loss of social services if the bill is passed because religious traditionalists who get city money won’t agree to treat gay couples equally.  These losses have not materialized in other jurisdictions recognizing gay marriage or civil unions, though Catholic Charities has stopped providing adoption services in Massachusetts.

Winning on this issue in the political heart of the country is some consolation after disappointments in Maine and New York. Those losses themselves followed legislative victories in Vermont and New Hampshire, and a wild-card judicial win in Iowa. It’s hard to believe, but all of this happened in 2009. D.C. is one more chapter in a rather long and unfinished novel. We can see the arc of the story, but the narrative has a frustrating tendency to accelerate and decelerate, and we can’t yet be certain of the end.

For now, we can be certain only that gay families will be better off in one place whose historical and political importance far exceeds its size. Congratulations to gay families in the nation’s capital!