The war over same-sex marriage has rolled from state to state, almost always stoking fierce debate and bitter acrimony. On Tuesday, Washington, D.C., became the battlefield when council member David Catania, an at-large independent, introduced legislation that would make the nation's capital the latest jurisdiction where gays and lesbians could legally wed, and the only one south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
But while noisy debate has accompanied the issue here, there has been little doubt about whether the legislation will succeed. Nine of Catania's colleagues on the 13-member council have co-sponsored the measure, prompting him to say he was "completely confident" in its passage. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has also pledged to sign the bill. If that were not guarantee enough, a precursor bill that allowed Washington to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions sailed through 12 to 1 in May, with the sole opposition vote coming from council member and former mayor Marion Barry. The Democratic-controlled Congress, which can reject legislation affecting Washington, is not expected to block the bill, nor is the White House expected to object. And prospects for any referendum effort to halt same-sex marriages appear equally dim. When opponents sought a ballot initiative to halt the earlier bill, the board of elections deemed the effort illegal under Washington's Human Rights Act, a decision that was upheld in court. A pending effort to do the same with Catania's new bill will likely meet the same fate.
While passage of the bill is almost certain, the prospect of wedding bells for gay and lesbian couples in the nation's capital will nonetheless almost certainly stir up political heat before the bill is passed, which under council rules probably wouldn't happen until December. Some Republicans in Congress, while acknowledging that they are powerless to block same-sex marriage in the capital, will probably still try. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who is the ranking GOP member of the subcommittee with oversight over Washington, says he intends to support any effort to block the bill and may even sponsor such an effort himself, as he did with the previous bill that recognizes marriages from elsewhere. He says he didn't think Democrats would allow the matter to be voted upon because it would provide election fodder for opponents back home. That said, he still plans to try. "Some things are worth fighting for, and this is one of them," he tells TIME.
Opponents of the bill in Washington, blocked at every turn, continue to loudly condemn the effort, saying the council is acting against the wishes of residents. As in California, much of that opposition has been organized through churches. A network of pastors at predominantly black churches have been vocal opponents, and over the summer, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl joined the fray, reminding hundreds of Catholic priests in the area of the church's opposition. However, Pastor Patrick J. Walker, chairman of a task force opposing same-sex marriage in the Missionary Baptist Ministers' Conference of D.C. and Vicinity, predicts polarization and little appetite within Congress to take up the issue amid the health-care debate and other pressing issues. "I don't see the affairs of the District of Columbia distracting the Democratically controlled Congress on this issue," Walker says. "They would have to literally pump the brakes up there."
Washington's delegate, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, says that even the GOP leadership is uninterested in making it an issue. "I don't think people are looking for a fight they're going to lose," she says. She predicts little fuss, except from "back benchers." How much of a political issue the bill will create won't be known for some time. Jennifer E. Duffy, political analyst and editor with the Cook Political Report, says any political grist for Republicans will probably depend on the level of opposition in Congress and how the issue is raised. Republicans could look for allies within the ranks of conservative Democrats to try to bring the bill to a vote in Congress a big if. If so, the issue could become ammunition to be used against incumbent Democrats in midterm elections next year. Says Duffy: "It might be a vote that Republicans wouldn't mind making them take."