The Sexist

D.C. Gay Marriage Bill Preserves Domestic Partnerships

Last month, I argued against the provision in the D.C. same-sex marriage bill that would phase out domestic partnerships. In short: A lot of couples, gay and straight, don't want to have to opt into that problematic "marriage" business in order to secure our rights. Marriage still comes with a lot of unwanted shit, like an implicit reinforcement of outdated religious and social implications, not to mention our grandmothers' expectations for a big 'ol wedding.

Good news: Yesterday, a revised draft of the marriage bill was released that will retain domestic partnerships (for now, at least). Bad news: the revised bill also allows churches to refuse to make their facilities available for those same-sex couples who actually are into that whole "marriage" business.

The Washington Blade reports on the DP "tweaks":

During the committee’s two days of hearings, Catania said he was open to removing language he placed in the bill that called for ending the city’s registration of new domestic partnerships after January 2010. Catania noted that he put the provision in the bill because most states that have legalized same-sex marriage have ended existing domestic partnership or civil unions programs on grounds that most same-sex couples prefer marriage.

But a number of witnesses, including officials with the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance and lesbian rights attorney and American University law professor Nancy Polikoff, urged the Council to remove the “sunset” clause for domestic partnerships from the marriage bill. These witnesses suggested that the Council take up the domestic partnerships issue at a later date and through separate legislation.

Right now, we're focused on securing marriage equality, and that's an extremely important step. But hopefully, by the time the council gets around to considering domestic partnerships, we'll be able to look beyond marriage and consider our other options on their own merits. Even when same-sex marriages are recognized, we will still need to address how some marriage rights discriminate against those couples and singles who opt out of the institution. Right now, it may be true that "most same-sex couples prefer marriage," but I believe that may begin to change as the institution evolves and more options are made socially acceptable. A lot of people just don't want to get married, period, and they shouldn't have to do so to get their rights.

On to the religious side:

On the religious exemption provision, Catania’s original bill noted that “a religious organization, association or society, or a nonprofit organization which is operated, supervised, or controlled by” a church or religious group “shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, facilities or goods” for the purpose of performing any marriage “unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available … to members of the general public.”

The revised bill removes the “unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available … to members of the general public” language.

Seeing as I would never be interested in getting married in one of these God-forsaken places anyway, this language is less important to me personally. But it's extremely unsettling that the council's bill includes an allowance for religious institutions to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. The provision, at the very least, serves as a reminder that even when same-sex marriage is legal, marriage will still be fucked up in a lot of ways. Why not just opt out and go for a domestic partnership?

  • Mike Riggs

    Would you also require churches to administer communion to attendees who weren't confirmed? Or synagogues to Bah Mitzvah non-Jews?

    Religious institutions already discriminate against couples looking to marry. A Jew can't marry a Catholic in a Catholic church, for instance. Some Anglican couples can't get married without counseling from a priest beforehand.

    And you know what? This is a good thing. Churches and synagogues are private cultural institutions. Flawed as those institutions are, it would be a gross violation of the First Amendment to require all churches to open their doors to gay marriage.

    Besides, there's always Reform Judaism and the Episcopal Church. Others may follow as our culture liberalizes, but it's absolutely appalling to require a church to marry any couple--gay or straight--against its will.

  • Amanda Hess

    But the provision originally was only open to institutions that opened their facilities to the public. They don't have to "marry" them. They just have to allow them to use their facilities if other people are allowed to rent them out.

  • Mike Riggs

    I still don't see how this is the state's concern: A Roman Catholic church is "open" to everyone, but available for the purpose of a wedding only to Roman Catholics.

    Discrimination is sometimes ugly, sometimes an act of cultural preservation, but in most cases, is--and should be--perfectly legal.

  • Amanda Hess

    Religious-affiliated institutions ARE sometimes just used as buildings. And what about a "nonprofit organization which is operated, supervised, or controlled by” a church or religious group? If they allow heterosexual marriage receptions, should they be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation?

  • Drew

    I generally agree that private institutions should be allowed to discriminate: even to very ugly extents.

    But that's not generally how the law works for public spaces in general: if you offer a given space for private rent as a commercial enterprise, then according to DC law you can't say "...but no black people." Singling out homosexual-themed events for special exemption from this practice would be treating homosexuals different from other groups under existing anti-discrimination law, not preserving an existing right to discriminate in rental spaces.

  • Mike Riggs

    Again, I agree that it's an ugly thing to do, but I'm not sure how using state force to gain entrance to a religious institution for a wedding ceremony benefits gay marriage.

    The end result is, "You said we couldn't, the law says we can, so there."

    Who wants that kind of hostility surrounding their wedding? And is there really a dearth of buildings--religious-affiliated or otherwise--for gay marriage?

  • Drew

    It's definitely a really nasty setup for some really nasty confrontations.

    But what's the alternative? Is carving out special holes/exceptions in commercial anti-discrimination laws/practice better? Churches that don't want gays in their buildings could simply not open them/rent them out to non-church members looking to hold non-church events. I mean, that's essentially what we're talking about here, not TPCarney's deceptive "forcing churches to marry gay people" thing.

  • Joe Schmoe

    I think its ironic that you use your personal views on marriage/partnerships to assault those with traditional views with statements like "outdated religious and social implications". I thought this idea was that everyone was entitled to his or he own definition of partnership/marriage without someone else coming along and pissing on it.

  • C

    I think the change is meant to ensure that churches have complete control over what happens in their sanctuaries. So even if they rent out their sanctuary for some purpose (like an ANC meeting) they can still refuse to allow same-sex marriages to be held on their premises. Church-owned enterprises not related to their religious functions would not be exempt. For example, a church operated thrift shop would not be able refuse to sell clothing because it would be used in a same sex marriage.

    Churches are not allowed to discriminate in employment based on sexual orientation nor are they allowed to refuse benefits to gay employees who are married.

    The trick is to come up with language that covers all of this.

  • Drew

    "Churches are not allowed to discriminate in employment based on sexual orientation nor are they allowed to refuse benefits to gay employees who are married."

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but churches, and most private organizations, CAN discriminate in employment and benefits as far as I know. The Boy Scouts, for instance, does: even though it's not even a church.

  • Reid

    But guess what's not guaranteed by the first amendment?

    Your tax exemption.

    If you want to run a church that actively discriminates the same way that Augusta doesn't let women join their club, fine. We'll just look forward to receiving that check for your property tax next spring.

  • Molly

    I'm in favor of civil marriage rights for all. In fact, I wish the government wasn't in the business of marriage, and that everybody just registered as partners. Whatever special religious or cultural thing you want to layer on top of that is fine.

    But it's not bad news that private organizations which are NOT open to the public have the right to refuse to marry whomever they choose. If a church wants to rent its halls out to the public, then sure, they should not be allowed to discriminate. But there are churches that do not rent out their facilities to the public and who do not marry non-members in their halls. It would be wrong for the government to tell a private institution what it can and cannot do behind closed doors. Just like it would be wrong for the government to tell consenting adults what they do behind closed doors.

    Punishing organizations who are not in the business of publicly renting their facilities to perform gay marriages on their property is exactly the same as busting into a home where two gay people are being intimate together and arresting them. Civil tolerance means that you let people do whatever they like in private, even if you think it's disgusting, because that is their right.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Joe Schmoe: Everyone is entitled to think about their marriage in whatever context they'd like to. But it's undeniable that the institution of marriage carries with it a good deal of social implications for people who opt in, and these implications stem from the outside. These implications can be denied, ignored, re-imagined, and changed from the inside, but the symbolism of marriage is still there. That's why we're fighting for same-sex marriage in the first place, instead of settling for domestic partnerships that would carry all the rights of marriage without that symbolic kick. It's extremely important that that symbolic acceptance be extended to same-sex couples, but even when the law changes, not everyone is interested in ignoring the bigoted, homophobic, and sexist history of the institution just because they're now allowed to join in on it.

  • Reid

    Molly the original bill would do just as you suggest. Namely that a church that doesn't rent itself out to the public would not be forced to rent it out for a gay marriage. Only if they generally rented it out to the public would they be barred from discriminating. You seem to agree with that proposition.

    The reason people are angry is that the marked up bill would remove that second part. Even if they rent it out to the public, they can still discriminate. That's straight up wrong. Just as wrong as if the Hilton wouldn't host a reception for a gay wedding.

    Yes it would be a violation of the first amendment to tell a church what religious services it must perform. But once a church decides to rent itself out to the public, it cannot use religion to justify discrimination.

  • Mike Riggs


    Would you say that the good a church does--housing, clothing, feeding the homeless, counseling, assisting the elderly--is worth being dismantled (because removing tax exemption status would effectively destroy those programs) in the name of forcing gay marriage onto an unwelcoming congregation?

    That sounds like a lose-lose to me. I think C's take is much wiser:

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  • Amanda Hess

    Riggs, they wouldn't have to dismantle their programs if they just rent space equally to all people.

    Also, C says "Church-owned enterprises not related to their religious functions would not be exempt." Do you have any sourcing on that? Also, what constitutes "enterprises not related to their religious functions"? For example, I've been to an ANC meeting at Catholic University, but the ANC meeting was not in a chapel, it was in a classroom. Doesn't renting out space constitute an enterprise not related to a religious function?

  • Mike Riggs

    @Hess So you would condone the removal of tax-exemption status from a church that felt morally obligated to decline to host a gay wedding, even if it meant the destruction of that church's social welfare programs?

    Do you also think a synagogue should be required by law to rent its space to the KKK? If you don't think so, do you think said synagogue should lose its tax-exempt status for morally objecting to the presence of an organization it finds philosophically repugnant?

    A Klan meeting and a gay wedding are two totally different things, but if we cover one under anti-discrimination laws, why not the other?

  • Eric

    Does the new language mean that religious hospitals can refuse to treat same-sex couples?

  • Reid

    Yeah, I think maybe it is worth it. I don't care what good deeds you do, the decision to discriminate should disqualify you from receiving a government benefit. We can take your taxes and distribute them to organizations that don't discriminate.

  • Mike Riggs

    @Reid I think that's a classic definition of cutting off the nose to spite the face, and I'm sorry you feel that way. Reactionaries aren't good at everything, but the Roman Catholic Church is quite good at helping the poor.

    Let's hope that cooler heads prevail.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Riggs If this religious exemption were taken out of the marriage bill, the legal fights that would ensue would concern the difference between discriminating against a protected class and discriminating against a group's "message."

    Private organizations can decline to extend public accommodations to groups who want to use the accommodation to espouse messages that are contrary to the organization's purpose, but they can't discriminate against protected classes of people. In D.C., sexual orientation is a protected class under the Human Rights Act. The views of white supremacists are not.

    So, say a religious group regularly rents out a church hall for wedding receptions and other get-togethers. Could it refuse to rent to a party for a white supremacist organization's meeting? Yes. Could it refuse to rent to a party of people who just happen to look like white supremacists? No. Personal appearance is protected under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

    Now, could the group decline to rent to a party of gay people celebrating a recent wedding? That depends on the definition of "message." For example, you can't just say that your organization is devoted to stomping out homosexuality, and refuse to allow gays to use your facilities for that reason. Gays are a protected group. What they publicly announce when they're using your accommodations is what matters.

  • Mike Riggs

    Using the force of the state to get gay-married on the premises of an organization that is philosophically opposed to gay marriage is a message, it's just not banners, whistles and balloons. It's an unspoken, "Fuck you, we've been stomped on for so long that we're going to push past equal rights, and stomp right back, using the power of the state."

    But I think there's an earlier miscommunication we haven't dealt with. I don't understand how a Catholic Church could deny use of its sanctuary to a Jewish couple but not to gays. How does that work? And if we're not talking about sanctuaries, what the hell are we talking about?

    And again, how is invading hostile spaces using the law in any way a positive push for gay marriage or gay rights?

  • Amanda Hess

    @Riggs I really doubt many people would be using the D.C. human rights law to get gay-married in the sanctuary of the Catholic Church in order to administer a fuck you to the church. I just doubt that is really ever going to come up, and by focusing on an unlikely scenario you're really skewing this discussion. That being said, the Catholic Church has been saying fuck you to gays for a long time, so I don't really give a shit if someone wants to do that.

    But: Read the language of the bill. It is BROAD. There are many places this could come up. We're not just talking about sanctuaries. This covers any organization affiliated with a religious group that, for example, sells shit to the public. And the bill makes it legal for them to decide not to sell shit to gay people if it will be used in their wedding. That is discrimination, and it's against the law. That's why it's being written into the bill as an exception.

    But again, this only pertains to public accommodations. Private accommodations aren't subject to the same rules. Also, the D.C. Human Rights Act allows for religious and political institutions to favor members of that religion/political party in employment and I believe in providing accommodations. I assume that provision helps ensure that these organizations can even survive---discrimination is legal in D.C. if the business can prove that it will go out of business if it complies with the law, but that's really hard to prove.

  • Mike Riggs

    @Hess The "services, accommodations, facilities or goods" exemption seems explicitly intended to prevent the examples I gave above.

    Those who want “unless the entity makes such services, accommodations, or goods available … to members of the general public” inserted back into the bill should be able to give some pretty good examples--specific names of venues, organizations, stores, services that they might be denied--in order to prove that they stand to suffer harm from its absence in the legislation.

  • Joelle

    I'm really happy that a civil union will be legally recognized. I don't see why the state has to be involved beyond legal recognition. If you want your union to be recognized by religion (marriage) then so be it.

    Let the churches discriminate, they are a private institution. The churches that accept the new domestic unions will be seeing a big boost in their congregation numbers.

  • Amanda Hess

    Again ... they are a private institution until they begin offering a public accommodation. Public accommodations are covered by the D.C. Human Rights Act. If I run a church, and I open a restaurant that helps to fund the church, I can't just refuse to let in a gay couple's rehearsal dinner party because the restaurant happens to be run by bigots. It still has to follow the law.

  • Mike Riggs

    @Hess They're still private institutions, even if they sell stuff to just anyone, as a public institution is funded by tax-payer money.

    I understand the D.C. Human Rights Act, I also understand (perhaps "believe" is a better word), that private organizations--even ones, as noted above, that will sell stuff to just about anybody--have the right to discriminate, a right based on the First Amendment.

  • Amanda Hess

    @MikeRiggs Just curious, would you extend the right to discriminate to all private institutions, regardless of religious affiliations? A hotel that provides public accommodations, for example?

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