As six same-sex couples emerged from the D.C. Superior Court on Monday afternoon after applying for marriage licenses, cheers and applause erupted from the crowd of about 40 people who rallied in support on the nearby sidewalk.
On the same day that Massachusetts officials began performing same-sex weddings, the four male and two female couples elevated the fight over gay and lesbian marriages — and the recognition of such unions — in the nation’s capital. But given the District of Columbia’s unique relationship with the federal government, they face a very different battle than those being fought in the 50 states.
The rally for D.C. marriage rights included openly gay D.C. City Councilman Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who said that despite “a mean-spirited Congress holding us back,” equal marriage rights in D.C. will happen.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “Never have I felt such absolute courage and momentum. … We are on the move.”
But the six couples have already run into a roadblock.
They will return to the courthouse on Friday to see if their applications are approved. However, according to Chris Cooper, director of communications for Marriage Equality Now D.C., who helped organize the event, after paying a $35 application fee on Monday the couples “were told in no uncertain terms, ‘You will not be getting a license.’”
Cooper pointed out that a major right that activists are seeking is full recognition by and benefits from the city for same-sex marriages of couples who may travel to other states, like Massachusetts, to be wed. He said he’s concerned that the D.C. City Council and Mayor Anthony Williams’ (D) office may not make this issue move because of fear of a backlash from Congress.
“The mayor is obligated to follow the law, so if the current law does not provide for the issuance of licenses to same-sex couples, he’s going to follow that law,” said Tony Bullock, Williams’ spokesman.
But Bullock acknowledged that Williams has asked Acting Corporation Counsel Robert Spagnoletti to research how the city will treat same-sex couples who have been married in other states and seek benefits in D.C.
“In anticipation of that eventual occurrence, the mayor sought some legal opinion as to what does the current law say. Does it obligate us one way or another? That opinion is currently before the mayor.”
Bullock said Spagnoletti’s report is a private legal opinion for the mayor and has not been released, and it would be up to the mayor to decide if and when to release it.
Already, some members of the City Council have called on Williams to release the report.
But Bullock added that there is doubt that Congress will allow the City Council or the mayor’s office to decide this matter on their own.
“We have heard from some House and Senate Members that there is reason to be concerned about efforts to put some sort of language in our appropriations bill or the supplemental that would prohibit the District from recognizing marriages like those being performed in Massachusetts,” Bullock said.
“I wish it would happen but given the history of the way the Republicans have dealt with D.C., I’m sure they will move to stop it,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay. He said that if D.C. moves in the direction of granting or recognizing same-sex marriages, the city will see a backlash from conservative Members, “particularly because they won’t get their constitutional amendment” to ban gay marriages.
House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), whose committee has oversight of the District, could not be reached for comment.
Bullock said the mayor’s office has been “cautioned and advised that we should be concerned.”
Congress “injects their personal issues into our affairs on a regular basis,” he said. “We’ve had a very long history with Congress attaching social riders to our appropriations bill. … Unfortunately the issue of the day often winds up in the D.C. appropriations bill.”
But Bullock said that he’s holding out hope that Congress will allow the District to decide this issue on its own.
“The Defense of Marriage Act gives individual states the right to determine these issues, so we’d like to retain our autonomy and we would fight vigorously any effort to either compel us to recognize same-sex marriages or deny same-sex marriages. … We would like to determine our posture in this matter in the same way that every other state in the country can.”
The significance of Monday marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was not lost on the crowd of same-sex marriage supporters outside the D.C. courthouse. They carried signs with drawings of rainbows which read, “Separate is not equal,” and chanted, “Gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a civil right.”
“Separate was not equal in 1954, and it’s not equal now,” said Jeff Bale of the International Socialist Organization, one of the event’s sponsors.