D.C. Council member David A. Catania will introduce legislation Tuesday to allow same-sex couples to marry - a bill virtually assured passage by the council and unlikely to generate enough opposition to be overturned by the Democrat-controlled Congress.
The bill, which could be given final approval by the council as early as December, would expand current laws that recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions to allow such marriages to be performed in the District.
Currently, four states perform same-sex marriages. New Hampshire is scheduled to begin performing same-sex marriages in 2010, and Maine voters will consider the issue in a ballot initiative in November.
Mr. Catania's bill, called the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, will be co-sponsored by 10 of the District's 13 council members. If passed and signed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the measure would face a 30-day congressional review period during which members of Congress could attempt to block its implementation.
"My sincere hope is that the Congress of the United States of America and its members have more pressing matters before them than this," said Mr. Catania, at-large independent. "At the end of the day, this is an issue that should be left to the elected representatives of the District of Columbia. And I'm hopeful that there will be respect for that on the Hill."
In order to block a D.C. law, members of Congress must enact a joint resolution of disapproval and the president must approve the resolution during the 30-day review period.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting congressional representative, said she was confident that a same-sex marriage bill would survive any congressional opposition.
"Opposition by some in the House already has been announced, but I believe we can and should defeat opposition to gay marriage rights in the District of Columbia as enacted by the District's own elected officials," she said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, Postal Service and District of Columbia, said a resolution opposing the measure has little hope of making it to the president's desk.
"Democrats have the House, the Senate and the presidency, so it is an uphill battle at best," said Mr. Chaffetz, who opposes same-sex marriage. "The deck is stacked against us at this point."
Members of Congress also could attempt to block a D.C. Council-approved same-sex marriage bill by attaching a rider to another congressional bill preventing its implementation.
Members of the Republican-controlled Congress used a similar tactic beginning in 1998 when they annually blocked the District from using its own money to fund needle-exchange programs by attaching riders to the city's federal appropriations bill. That ban was lifted in 2007, after Democrats took control of the House of Representatives.
A bill that would grant the city voting rights in Congress was pulled from the House floor this year after threats that it would be amended to include language that would weaken the city's gun laws.
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, co-introduced a bill in the House earlier this year that would define marriage in the District as between a man and a woman. The bill was in response to the District's passage of the law recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Mr. Jordan said Thursday that opponents of same-sex marriage in Congress have not decided how to proceed, but he would like the issue taken to the city's residents.
"Whenever this issue, this debate, this question is put to the people of any jurisdiction, of any state, when they get to decide the people have said marriage should be what marriage has always been," he said.
A petition for a referendum on the subject of same-sex marriage was filed last month with the District's Board of Elections and Ethics by a coalition of religious leaders.
Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. of the Hope Christian Church in Beltsville has led the effort against same-sex marriage and called again Thursday for the subject to be put before the voters.
"We're dealing with an issue that should be a major, major foundational issue to our culture - marriage and its definition. It seems just a little bit unwise for a small group of people to confer among themselves and vote on it," Mr. Jackson said.
A D.C. Superior Court judge in July rejected an effort by Mr. Jackson and others to put to a public vote the council's bill granting recognition to same-sex marriages performed in other states, saying the public vote would violate the District's Human Rights Act.
Mr. Catania said he was mindful of religious freedom when crafting the bill. He said the bill provides that no church or member of the clergy shall be required to perform or recognize a marriage that runs counter to religious beliefs or teachings. The city also will stop registering new domestic partners after Jan. 1, 2011, but will continue to recognize those domestic partners already registered.
Council Member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, which will likely be assigned to consider the bill, said he will hold public hearings as soon as possible.
He said he expected that the bill would be voted out of committee and presented to the entire council in time for a first vote at the Dec. 1 legislative session. He said the council could hold the required second vote later that month, but no additional council meeting is scheduled.
Mr. Fenty has expressed support for same-sex marriage legislation and is expected to sign a bill approved by the council.