City Desk

Norton: I Can Protect Same-Sex Marriage Bill

So the D.C. Council has voted to (kinda-sorta) allow same-sex marriage. What now?

Assuming the bill becomes law, plenty of observers see two fronts of possible conflict. First is that the law will set off a frenzy of congressional intervention. To wit, American Prospect's Ezra Klein.

Nope, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says to LL this afternoon: "I anticipate being able to be able to protect it....In order to do something someone is going to have to introduce a bill or otherwise get something through the Congress. Well, you gotta pass by me on that....I believe I can prevent any bill from moving to the House floor to overturn the bill that was passed yesterday."

What Klein doesn't quite get right is that Congress need not actively "approve" D.C.'s decision. If lawmakers do nothing about the bill for 30 days, it's law.

In fact, no District statute has been actively disapproved by Congress; what is more common is that "riders" are attached to District appropriations prohibiting spending on the controversial legislation—which is what happened when D.C. first passed domestic-partnership laws. The chances of an active disapproval wending its way through a Democratically controlled Congress are slim—but of course LL and others had the same thought on guns and D.C. voting rights.

Norton says the gun issue was a special case, due to the power of the National Rifle Association. "Unfortunately, the gun amendment is controlled by a big lobby that specializes in out-and-out intimidation of members and big donations. There's no such organized lobby against gays or gay marriages....There are a lot of little organizations and a even larger ones, but they don't have the money or the bullying tactics that have been used by the NRA. The NRA stops just short of putting guns at people's heads. It's a classic back-alley bully."

The second conflict is that the law would conflict with the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which essentially prohibits the federal government from recognizing a same-sex relationship as a marriage. That's the hope of "traditional marriage" defender Brian Brown, who did a chat yesterday with David Catania.

Here's the text of the language: "In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."

Seems the questions are: (1) is District law the same as an act of Congress? and (2) does the District count as one of the "various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States"?

Norton says, in both cases, absolutely not: "It's a self-governing jurisdiction....Congress could reassert jurisdiction over the District, but it's delegated that jurisdiction to the District, and I have insisted at least since I've been here that that delegation remain."

Don't count on that argument to satisfy conservative jurists. Once a D.C. gay-marriage law is on the books, expect to see them in court.

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  • Javier

    The third HUGE obstacle is a voter referenda. Any legislation can be undone by a single majority vote of voters. Although the demographics of the city have changed, much of the population is very religious and socially conservative. I think gay marriage would have a hard time surviving a referenda for years to come.

  • homophobe_gets_smacked

    Oh Gawd. Some people are dumb as a bag of rocks. Not every jurisdiction has an option for "voter referenda." For example, in Vermont, it is practically impossible now for the uneducated sheep to vote on the new law that was just passed. Same thing with the Iowa decision. Do your research before you yap.

  • SG

    Well, it's time. Let the chips fall where they may. If it fails, it will just show how absurd the current colonial domination of 600,000 residents truly is and what a sham American democracy has become.

  • Karen

    I think people overestimate the number of religious, socially conservative (read old African-Americans) who would vote against the law. Recall that the law passed unanimously, and even Yvette Alexander (who represents the likely socially conservative group referred to) voted for it, even though she said she wouldn't. Everyone knows that in those Black churches, there is someone in the choir everyone knows is gay, but no one says anything. I think if the gay rights groups handle this well, putting real faces that look like DC (e.g., not just the Dupont Circle crowd, but East of the River gays; they do exist) to the issue, and considering the real people who could be affected by such laws, they could win it. Those older African Americans also have a deep sense of injustice that can be tapped, if approached correctly. Of course, if they suck as bad as the No on Prop 8 folks did in CA, then they do run the risk of a referendum overturning the law. But I have to assume that folks have learned from that fiasco and actually figured out the need and ability to court the Black community.

    Also remember that a lot of the members of the big name churches in DC live in MD. That's why the congregations are moving out the Prince George's county in the first place. Their voices are muted.

  • Cameron Brown

    I may be a highschool student, but having read this article is starting to make me think that mabe our law system is faulty.

    all it takes is a few swaying words, a few slick-hearted sentences and this bill goes down, plus, the bullying tactic...why in the world would an organization need that? as a personal belief, gays should have the right to marry. if two people love each other that really should be all thats needed for a healthy relationship. while not gay myself, i do support gay marriage.

  • Mike DeBonis

    LL is with Karen.

    On the ballot measure issue, may LL direct your attention to D.C. Code §1-1001.16(b)(1): "Upon receipt of each proposed initiative or referendum measure, the [Board of Elections and Ethics] shall refuse to accept the measure if the Board finds that it is not a proper subject of initiative or referendum...upon any of the following grounds:...(C) The measure authorizes, or would have the effect of authorizing, discrimination prohibited under Chapter 14 of Title 2."

    §2-14 is the District's human rights statute, under which discrimination under "sexual orientation" is prohibited.

    Just a thought.

  • DCGay

    Don't forget the city voters passed a referendum on Council Term limits and the Council overturned it.
    The city voted for medical marijuana referendum and Congress overturned it.
    I'm not worried about a referendum.

  • Reid

    "The third HUGE obstacle is a voter referenda. Any legislation can be undone by a single majority vote of voters."

    DC's referendum law is tough. You need to get at least 5% of voters to sign the petition from at least 5 different Wards. Getting 5% of all voters of either Wards 1, 2, 3 or 6 would be a tall order. And that's assuming you get 5% from 4, 5, 7, and 8. Remember, Ward 9 has no vote except when it comes to double-parking and vacancy tax rates.