- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

D.C. elections officials are expected to issue a ruling as early as Friday on whether a referendum dealing with recognizing same-sex marriages in the nation’s capital can go forward.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics is weighing opinions for and against a proposed referendum on legislation passed last month by the D.C. Council that grants legal recognition to same-sex couples married in other jurisdictions.

The board - which currently has two members, Charles Lowery Jr. and Chairman Errol R. Arthur, and one vacancy - was receiving public comment on the issue through Thursday, meaning a decision may come as early as Friday. A split decision would mean the referendum failed.

A timetable for the decision takes on even greater importance because the recognition bill is currently before Congress for review. Referendum supporters must present signatures to the board to bring the issue before voters prior to the review period’s expiration - expected in early July - and the legislation becoming law, said Kenneth J. McGhie, the board’s general counsel.

“I would advise you that we take this matter very seriously,” Mr. Arthur said at a public hearing on the issue Wednesday.

The board members appeared skeptical at the hearing of arguments made by referendum supporters that placing the issue on the ballot would not violate the District’s Human Rights Act (HRA), which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. A referendum’s subject cannot violate that act.

“This referendum would do nothing more than maintain the status quo of what marriage has been and is in the District of Columbia - a union between a man and a woman,” said Brian Raum of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which is working with referendum supporters.

But Mr. Lowery and Mr. McGhie seemed unconvinced.

“Wouldn’t the District not recognizing same-sex marriages from another jurisdiction be a form of discrimination?” Mr. McGhie asked.

D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles also submitted an opinion to the board Thursday saying the referendum should be rejected.

“As expressed in the HRA, the established public policy of the District of Columbia is to treat individuals as equals, whatever their gender, sexual orientation or marital status may be,” Mr. Nickles wrote.

Debate during the hearing also centered on the applicability of a 1995 appellate court decision dealing with the city’s ability to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple - as well as emotional arguments from both supporters and opponents of the referendum.

“It has become abundantly and painfully clear that proponents … are calling for a public vote that would give vent to homophobia,” said gay rights advocate and Ward 8 resident Philip E. Pannell.

Said the Rev. Dale Wafer, a referendum supporter: “Our purpose is to stand up for the people of the District and their right to vote on this vital public issue.”

• Gary Emerling can be reached at gemerling@washingtontimes.com.

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