Backers of an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in the District next year are re-evaluating their strategy in light of political realities, including a California referendum last month in which blacks voted overwhelmingly for a constitutional amendment to prohibit the practice.
“It’s a little tricky right now,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and one of two gay members on the city’s legislative body. “And it’s a very considerable list of stakeholders who need to be strategically engaged.”
A bill legalizing gay marriage in the District likely would pass with a majority of council support. But whether it’s in the city’s best interest to pursue it as a priority next year, and whether the measure would earn the support of the city’s black community or get federal approval, remain in question. A gay-marriage measure could complicate the agenda of President-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, as well as the District’s quest for full voting representation in the House.
Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry, passed last month in California with 52 percent of the vote. CNN exit polls suggested that 70 percent of black voters and 53 percent of Hispanic voters were in favor of the ballot measure.
In the District, where more than half of the population is black, objections from minority voters might not deter the council or Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat who has said he supports gay marriage.
D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said he is analyzing actions on same-sex marriage in states like California, Massachusetts and Vermont and will advise the mayor about what an effort in the District might face.
“I would tell him what the legal strengths and weaknesses are, and he would take his position,” said Mr. Nickles, who hopes to finish his analysis by the end of the year.
But if those opposed to gay marriage can bring the issue to a voter referendum, it still could spell trouble for proponents. Backing from the city’s historically black churches could prove crucial.
A poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that the strongest blocs of opponents to same-sex marriage were evangelical Christians and voters who did not attend college, according to the Associated Press.
The AP also said age and race factors were not as strong as assumed, although according to the poll, 56 percent of voters older than 55 and 57 percent of nonwhite voters cast “yes” ballots for the gay-marriage ban.
“We are figuring out a strategy for reaching out to African-American people, including African-American church leaders,” said Michael Crawford, a black gay activist and head of the D.C. for Marriage project. “It’s obviously going to be a challenge for us in terms of reaching out to African-American religious leaders.”
Mr. Crawford’s group is holding a community forum Thursday to bring together supporters of gay marriage.
The forum, held at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Equality Center at 7 p.m., will lay out the political context for proposed legislation and help allies “figure out a unified way of moving forward,” Mr. Crawford said.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest — which was founded in 1839 — said he would not be in favor of a same-sex marriage bill and doesn’t think one “would be met with great enthusiasm on the part of the African-American church.”
“The framework … is whether or not a given discussion on marriage falls within the biblical perspective,” Mr. Harkins said. “I think there will be a lot of very spirited disagreement probably about that.”
Pastors of other black churches in the District — including Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast, Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest and the Imani Temple on Capitol Hill — did not return calls seeking comment.
But the Rev. Charlie Arehart of the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C., said he is optimistic about public support for a gay-marriage bill.
Mr. Arehart, who is white and estimated that his congregation in Northwest is 55 percent black and 90 percent gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual, said a larger concern could center on when to put the bill forward.
“The African-American church in the city could very well come out in force and oppose it, but that’s not to say necessarily that the entire African-American community would respond that way,” Mr. Arehart said.
If a same-sex marriage bill clears the D.C. Council and the mayor’s desk, Congress could decide the measure’s fate through its legislative oversight of the District.
Despite a congressional Democratic majority next year, the political climate on Capitol Hill harbors other concerns — one of which could arise if Republicans force Democrats to vote on the measure to use as ammunition in subsequent elections.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District in Congress, also is hopeful of winning full congressional representation for the District next year. A controversial topic like same-sex marriage would compete with that and other city priorities.
“I think the community needs to look at this very carefully and decide collectively with our national organizations and with our support in Congress when the right time to do this is,” said Peter D. Rosenstein, a gay community activist.
The politics of Mr. Obama also present a challenge. The Democrat opposes same-sex marriage but does not think there should be a constitutional amendment banning the practice.
Asking him to sign a bill granting gays the right to marry in the nation’s capital would place the new president in a difficult spot early in his term.
On the council, David A. Catania — at-large independent and the body’s other openly gay member — reportedly has discussed introducing a same-sex marriage bill along with several colleagues early next year, according to the Washington Blade.
A Catania spokesman said the council member is “definitely considering” the gay-marriage issue and plans to spend the council’s upcoming recess talking with those involved.
Mr. Graham said he is hopeful that when the time is right, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray would introduce the bill “with as many members as possible as co-introducers.”
Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said the chairman, a Democrat, supports same-sex marriage but wants to take action in consultation with Mrs. Norton and in a way that ensures “we are moving at the right time with a winning strategy that will result in passing a law without opponents putting up roadblocks.”
“Moving carefully, Chairman Gray believes passage of a same-sex marriage law in the District of Columbia is not too far away,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Graham said there is plenty of work to do in winning both local and national support.
“It’s mainly a question of when to do it,” Mr. Graham said. “We want this to stick.”