Wednesday, November 11, 2009

One Step Closer to Marriage in DC

The DC marriage bill has officially passed committee by a vote of 4-1! The next step is the first vote before the full Council.

According to this update in the Washington Blade, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) released Monday a revised draft of the same-sex marriage bill that removes language that would have phased out city registration of new domestic partnerships.

Mendelson, who chairs the Council committee that has jurisdiction over the bill, also broadened the bill’s exemption for churches and religious organizations to allow them to refuse to rent facilities or provide services for same-sex marriage ceremonies, even though such facilities and services are available to the general public.

The bill’s original version was written by Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who is gay, and was co-introduced by Catania and nine of his colleagues on the 13-member Council.

Mendelson made the revisions in his role as chair of the Committee on Public Safety & Judiciary, which held public hearings on the legislation Oct. 26 and Nov. 1.

The committee was scheduled to hold a markup hearing on the bill, known as the Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, on Tuesday, when a final committee draft is expected to be debated and approved.

The revised draft released Monday leaves intact all of the major provisions written by Catania, including the key provision allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the District of Columbia.

During the committee’s two days of hearings, Catania said he was open to removing language he placed in the bill that called for ending the city’s registration of new domestic partnerships after January 2010. Catania noted that he put the provision in the bill because most states that have legalized same-sex marriage have ended existing domestic partnership or civil unions programs on grounds that most same-sex couples prefer marriage.

But a number of witnesses, including officials with the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance and lesbian rights attorney and American University law professor Nancy Polikoff, urged the Council to remove the “sunset” clause for domestic partnerships from the marriage bill. These witnesses suggested that the Council take up the domestic partnerships issue at a later date and through separate legislation.

On the religious exemption provision, Catania’s original bill noted that “a religious organization, association or society, or a nonprofit organization which is operated, supervised, or controlled by” a church or religious group “shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, facilities or goods” for the purpose of performing any marriage “unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available … to members of the general public.”

The revised bill removes the “unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available … to members of the general public” language.

In a 22-page report that accompanies the bill’s new version, Mendelson’s committee says it “removed this language … after considerable comment from both secular and non-secular organizations.”

“Including this language would have had the undesirable impact of religious institutions closing their spaces to community groups and organizations, as there would otherwise be civil [liability] stemming from any refusal to solemnize or celebrate a same-sex marriage,” says the report.

Similar to his view on the domestic partnership provision, Catania noted during the Council hearings on the bill that he would be open to considering modifying the religious exemption provision in a way similar to the change made by Mendelson.

However, both Catania and Mendelson said at the hearings that they did not support further changes in the religious exemption provision proposed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Archdiocesan officials and an official with Catholic Charities called on the Council to add a provision allowing religious organizations that provide services for the city, such as homeless shelters and adoption or foster child services, to refuse to provide employee benefits to the spouse of a same-sex employee.

Catania noted that as much as 75 percent of the funding for Catholic Charities-operated homeless shelters and adoption agencies come from the government. He said it would not be fair for groups receiving funds from taxpayers to engage in discrimination in employee benefits against same-sex couples.

Council members serving on the committee holding the markup hearing Tuesday, in addition to Mendelson, include Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), and Eyvette Alexander (D-Ward 7). Alexander is the only member of the committee who isn’t a co-introducer of the bill.