D.C. May Recognize Gay Marriage

Ruling by July 4 could set stage for Congress to overrule Washington’s Democratic mayor

According to Peter Rosenstein, a member of the mayor’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Advisory Committee, Williams told a June 1 meeting of the committee that he would issue such a directive within 30 days.

In an interview, Rosenstein went on to say that the attorney general for the District of Columbia, Robert Spagnoletti, has advised the mayor, a Democrat, on whether current district law prohibits recognition of same-sex marriages performed in the 50 states.

“It’s my understanding, [Spagnoletti] has told the mayor that the current city charter does not preclude D.C. from recognizing all marriages legally performed in other states,” said Rosenstein.

The decision to clarify the city’s position on same-sex marriage was prompted in part by a letter that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sent to officials in the other forty-nine states and Washington asking governors and attorneys general whether same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts would be recognized within their jurisdictions. Romney has invoked an obscure 1913 law, written to prevent interracial marriages, that prohibits Massachusetts from performing marriages for out-of-state couples whose home states do not recognize such unions.

If Washington recognizes the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, it would give district gay and lesbian couples the ability to argue that Massachusetts officials could issue them marriage licenses even while observing the 1913 law, which this week became the target of two lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

Wayne Witkowski, the deputy attorney general for Washington, confirmed that Spagnoletti had advised Williams on the district’s marriage law, but wouldn’t disclose whether or not Spagnoletti had deemed such marriages as legal. While Witowski said that he didn’t know when Williams would make public any directives regarding same-sex marriages, he also said that Washington “needs to be ahead of the curve in instructing various agencies about what they should do when same-sex couples claim they are married and present a marriage license.”

Witkowski said he was not aware of any same-sex couple who had thus far raised such a claim.

The District of Columbia has no law, such as the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that specifically states it can’t recognize same-sex marriages. However, the city’s home rule charter allows Congress to pass or repeal with a simple majority vote any law pertaining to the district.

Some gay activists fear that should Washington recognize same-sex marriages, Republicans who control both branches of Congress would then introduce legislation to ban all same-sex marriages in the city. With the Senate scheduled for a July 12 vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment, same-sex marriage advocates are fearful about a political backlash if Williams rules in their favor.

Rosenstein said that for some conservative lawmakers, banning same-sex marriage in Washington earns “political points” in their home states. He also said he believes that an effort to introduce legislation in Congress to enact a DOMA in Washington will allow those in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment to assess their congressional support. Rosentein said the effort could be viewed as a “dry run” for the July 12 clash over the constitutional amendment proposal.

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